The Hallé’s Opus One monthly series of concerts focuses on the core works of the orchestral repertoire, demonstrating why such pieces have stood the test of time. In addition, the thoughtful programming of this concert showed how one great composer influenced two very different composers of the next generation. The Hallé is currently on top form; with this and a virtuoso performance of a showpiece concerto we had a concert to treasure.

Denis Kozhukhin © Felix Broede
Denis Kozhukhin
© Felix Broede

The first work was a substantial suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This was the suite of six excerpts from the ballet published in 1900, some 25 years after the first performance of the ballet and seven years after the composer’s death. Swan Lake is perhaps the world’s favourite ballet but the music is played in concert less frequently than Tchaikovsky’s other ballet masterpieces, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. The suite does not follow the order of events in the ballet and does not include some of the best known music, but provides a highly enjoyable work in its own right. Particularly remarkable were the solos from members of the orchestra; violin (Lyn Fletcher), cello (Nicholas Trygstad) and harp (Marie Leenhard) were all invited to take well-deserved individual bows by the conductor. From the very start, it was clear that German conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens had a special rapport with the orchestra, bringing out the colours in the Czárdás, for example, and shaping the dance rhythms throughout.

Sergei Prokofiev was a virtuoso pianist from an early age and as a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1914 played his own Piano Concerto no 1 in D flat major at a competition – and won. At the time, it was considered shockingly avant garde, but over a century later we can see it in the Russian piano concerto tradition familiar from composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and indeed there were moments in this work that brought to mind both those composers. Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin gave a dazzling performance of the ferociously difficult piano part. The surging opening theme is repeated insistently, forcing itself into the listener’s mind so that it is recognised immediately when it returns in the middle of the work and again at the end, each time in a more elaborate guise. This gives a formal structure to the concerto which is in one continuous movement with contrasting episodes. The concerto lasts only about a quarter of an hour and is perfectly proportioned. It is an energetic, exuberant and joyful concerto full of youthful bravado, and was given a bravura performance by Denis Kozhukhin and the Hallé.

After the interval we had another work influenced by Tchaikovsky, the Symphony no 1 in E minor of Jean Sibelius which was first performed in 1899 when the composer was 33 and revised the following year. Although this was a first symphony, the composer was already an established figure and the work has the immediately recognisable Sibelius sound. Sibelius was experienced at writing for full orchestra and had composed such major works as the choral and orchestral Kullervo, the Lemminkäinen Legends and other tone poems. It is only in retrospect that we see the First Symphony as the beginning of a new series of masterpieces.

Sibelius’ First is not one of the easiest of works to bring off, but Karl-Heinz Steffens succeeded magnificently. The symphony has one of the most extraordinary beginnings of any: a long melody played by solo clarinet, accompanied by a timpani roll, which returns in a different guise in the fourth movement. The atmospheric performance by clarinettist Rosa Campos-Fernandez set the tone for a magnificent remainder of the work. Many other details remained in the mind after the performance was over, such as the chattering woodwind and surging brass of the first movement,  the rhythmic drive of the third movement scherzo (in the context of the concert curiously recalling the Prokofiev), the prominent role of the timpani and the enigmatic final two pizzicato chords with which the symphony ends. However, the conductor understood the ebb and flow of the music and was able to give the many orchestral solos their due prominence without adversely affecting the overall shape of the whole. 

This was a first rate performance of a wonderful work. Sibelius was born 150 years ago and many performances of his music are scheduled for this year. Let us hope that they will all be of this quality.