German Romanticism provides the core repertoire of most symphony orchestras, but would a concert in which all the works were drawn from this tradition be dull? In the case of the Hallé’s latest concert at the Bridgewater Hall, decidedly not. On the contrary, it demonstrated the variety and vitality of this music and why it is so important to our musical experience.

The substantial opener was Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. In fact it turned out that the theme that Brahms used to pay tribute to the “father of the symphony” was not by Haydn at all, and so it is often referred to by the alternative name of the St Anthony Variations. Whatever the title, and whatever the provenance of the theme, this is one of Brahms’ most engaging works. As the most cerebral of the Romantic composers, Brahms devotes much technical skill to the crafting of this piece and creates an almost new genre: an orchestral work consisting solely of variations. And yet Brahms wears his learning lightly: the overall impression is of a dazzling array of combinations of instruments in intriguing versions of the theme. Our conductor was Romanian Cristian Mandeal, former Principal Guest Conductor of the Hallé and always a welcome return visitor. He brought out the different characters of the variations and ensured that orchestral textures remained clear, keeping the balance between instruments just right.

Sophia Jaffé © EW Passau
Sophia Jaffé
© EW Passau

The Scottish Fantasy is perhaps Max Bruch’s second most frequently performed work and transports us to the world of bardic poetry, the novels of Sir Walter Scott and rugged landscapes beloved of Romantic artists of all genres across Europe in the 19th century. It is based on genuine Scottish melodies that the composer had found in a book: he did not visit Scotland himself until after he had written it. German violinist Sophia Jaffé joined the orchestra for an impassioned account of this work. She soared over the orchestra and her sumptuous playing made this a memorable performance. The substantial solo harp part was taken by the Hallé’s principal harpist, Marie Leenhardt, who was placed just behind Ms Jaffé in the centre of the stage. The strikingly atmospheric beginning with brass, cymbal and harp, soon to be joined by virtuoso solo violin, launched us into a Romantic vision of Scotland culminating in a rousing Allegro guerriero based on the song Scots whae hae. The performers all entered into the spirit of this relatively unfamiliar work. It made us long to hear more by Bruch – and not just the ever-popular Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor.

The works in the first half of the concert were from a time when Romanticism had become the dominant style of music-making in Germany and around Europe (the Brahms was first performed in 1873, the Bruch in 1881). Robert Schumann was composing several decades earlier when Romanticism was fresh, new and exciting and this is felt nowhere more strongly that in his Symphony no. 1 in B flat major, known as the Spring Symphony. Hitherto, Schumann had been predominantly a composer of piano music and songs but it was now time for him to turn to the orchestra. His First Symphony was sketched out in four remarkable days in January 1841; is it too fanciful to imagine Schumann in Leipzig looking forward to the arrival of spring from a dull, grey winter such as the audience at the Bridgewater Hall are currently experiencing in Manchester? Mandeal (conducting from memory) ensured that the opening movement surged forward with anticipation of the approach of spring without being rushed. The tranquillity of the second movement was quite a contrast; the scherzo, with its two trios, was again more energetic and the finale brought all the moods together with glorious bursts of sound as well as dancing rhythms and delicate evocations of nature coming to life. Mandeal revelled in the richness of Schumann’s sound-world with horns, trumpets and trombones giving special contributions. Throughout the performance conductor and orchestra were completely in sympathy with the composer’s intentions and these were being transferred straight to the listeners in this, one of the most lovable of all symphonies.  

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