In an unusual piece of programming by today’s standards, this evening’s symphony, Vaughan Williams’ fifth, was played before the interval, with the lighter works, Dvořák’s Wind Serenade and Elgar’s Cockaigne, later in the evening. Perhaps this brought freshness to the music, for there was a supple versatility in the Hallé’s symphony, darting between the heroic, pastoral and folky elements of the piece with exquisite sensitivity to each.

Andrew Gourlay
Andrew Gourlay

Vaughan Williams, returning from a brief period of low output, succeeded in creating a symphony which paints the tranquillity of rural England but intersperses hints of surrounding strife (the piece was completed in 1943) threatening to disturb the pastoral idyll he creates. Hints of folk tunes give way to moments of subtly encroaching darkness, and occasional suggestions of grand heroism punctuate the score. The first movement’s softly glowing opening themes passed between wind and strings with sonorous stillness, before the more invigorated music for strings and bell-like brass was played with a fresh zeal. The muted horns faded beautifully to nothing at the end of the movement. Then, however, began the coughing, as vast swathes of the audience cleared their throats with gusto and at some length between each movement, rather spoiling the effect of the moment. The ensuing Scherzo was in fine health, however, with folky string passages gliding with vivacity through the lively dance figures whilst bass rhythms threatened to disrupt the scene, almost suggestive of children at play. The Romanza opened with a glorious restraint in the string section, reminiscent of the same composer’s Tallis Fantasia, dawning warmly towards a gently lyrical and mysterious cor anglais solo. The woodwind section impressed throughout, conversing warmly with excellent phrasing. This movement was an acutely emotive creation by Elder and the Hallé, beautifully serene yet wistful, and superb in its realisation, with a fine solo from leader Lyn Fletcher. This is some of Vaughan Williams’ most touching music, powerfully moving and exquisitely crafted this evening. The fourth movement opened with a more pragmatic, resolutely forward-looking feel, with bold brassy heroism and further folk tunes, now from a dancing piccolo. When it came, the end was one of gentle acceptance. The performance was superb throughout, above all tender and wistful.

Andrew Gourlay, the Hallé’s young Assistant Conductor, directed Dvořák’s Serenade in D Minor for wind instruments, cello and double bass, a work of sunny lyricism, dances and marches. Principal Oboe Stéphane Rancourt led throughout with a charismatic delicacy and flexibility of tone which was full of charm. The inner movements were effervescent and excitable, with one player snatching the solo line from another with abundant wit. Each instrument was played with panache and personality, with the clarinet and oboe particularly good. Gourlay took much of the work very lightly, the music never taking itself too seriously, though marginally more could have been made of the fourth movement, if anywhere. He created a delightful sound, though, energetically bubbly and tuneful. The horn section accompanied very well throughout the piece, which culminated joyfully with further good clarinet playing.

Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne (In London Town) overture closed the concert with more vigorous excitement and lusciously romantic themes. It is a story-telling postcard of scenes from the city, with clumsy brass bands and strolling lovers aplenty. It opened crisply with a sparkling casualness, before Elder’s close attention to the singing line in the strings developed the drama. The woodwind were plucky and characterful, and the brass pompously engaging, particularly in the trombone solo passage, which closed with a pleasing but uncommon attention to detail. The trumpet’s semiquaver triplets were also precise and measured, highlighting a great deal of impressive individual and ensemble playing. Elder led with assurance, whipping up crescendos and throwing out sudden pianissimos with great clarity of vision. The final minutes of the piece, with the ad libitum organ part grandly realised, were imposing and marked the end to a very enjoyable concert of superb music.