The programme for the Hallé’s concert with conductor Cristian Măcelaru was a rich mixture of four very different works for large orchestra which proved to be an exhilarating and rewarding evening.

Cristian Măcelaru © David Swanson
Cristian Măcelaru
© David Swanson

Sibelius’ The Oceanides is the only one of his tone poems that refers to Greek rather that Finnish mythology. The sea-nymphs of the title are clearly represented by two flutes but no particular story is depicted. Rather this is a magnificent musical impression of the sea (perhaps, pace Mendelssohn and Debussy, the finest ever). The strings dominate, with unmistakably Sibelian contributions from the woodwind. The waves are sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce, and the piece rises to an almighty crash where we can almost feel the dangerous power of the ocean, only to subside into calmer weather. The nymphs have evidently relished the experience. Măcelaru and the orchestra brought out all the power and subtlety of this remarkable score.

By the time Poulenc wrote his Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings he had to some extent turned his back on the lighter mood of many of his earlier works and returned to religion. This is not to say that the jokier elements are totally absent – there are moments suggesting a cinematic chase scene and a fairground organ – but the feel of the church is more prominent, and the concerto begins with a near quotation of a Bach work which was also a favourite of the work’s commissioner, the indefatigable patron of the arts the Princesse de Polignac. The soloist was Manchester’s own favourite organist, Jonathan Scott. With the organ console at the front of the Bridgewater Hall’s stage the audience was able to see his hands and feet in action. He asserted his dominance in the Bach quotation and led us through the dramatic and lyrical shifts of mood and dazzled in his many solos. The large body of strings plus sole timpanist proved to be fine partners to the soloist.

A selection of six of Dvořák’s Legends Op.59 opened the second half. Dvořák orchestrated these piano duet works and it is remarkable that they are not performed more frequently. Unlike his late tone poems they do not refer to specific stories but are atmospheric miniatures, sometimes suggestive of the composer’s more familiar Slavonic Dances and often evocative of the Czech countryside. Nevertheless, one can imagine a narrative lying behind some of the Legends such as the more substantial no. 10. This being Dvořák, they were all full of melody. The orchestration is slightly different in each piece and many of the orchestra’s players had brief moments of prominence.

Janáček’s monumental Taras Bulba, based on a historical novel by Gogol set during the 17th-century Russian war against the Poles, closed the concert. At the time of composition (during the First World War) Russia was seen in what was to become Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe as protectors of the Slavs (though presumably the story of Taras Bulba would have been less appealing to the Poles). Janáček, as an enthusiastic Russophile, seized on this tale and created his “rhapsody for orchestra” of three episodes from Gogol’s novel. Unlike the Sibelius and Dvořák, the work has a very specific programme. The three movements refer to bloodthirsty episodes which focus on the deaths of the Cossack hero’s two sons and ultimately his own death, and are graphically portrayed by the large orchestra, though it is sometimes hard to relate the specific elements of the story to the music. Janáček’s individual harmonies and remarkable use of the orchestra create a thrilling whole. Particularly noteworthy were the harp’s contributions in the second movement, the telling use of cymbals and the many fine woodwind solos, not to mention the prominent part for organ – Jonathan Scott again. Măcelaru ensured that the balance between instruments was just right. The ending with full orchestra, bells and organ was overwhelming.