Last night’s concert by the Hallé, this season’s first guest orchestra to visit Sage Gateshead, was all about youth: a young conductor, a young soloist, a young composer, and music written for a young audience. There were even a few young faces in the large audience.

Rory Macdonald © Ruth Crafer
Rory Macdonald
© Ruth Crafer

Rory Macdonald conducted with decisive clarity, seizing the initiative right from the first bars of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra when he created wonderful surging sforzandos through the first statement of the theme. He then injected yet more vigour for the madcap whirl of the final fugue. The same power came through in the louder, faster passages of Shostakovich’s First Symphony and towards the end of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini: the final statement of the Dies irae theme had a real swing to it which was sadly ruined by a slightly fluffed ending – Rachmaninov’s cheeky little closing flourish wasn’t quite together, and this was one of several points during the concert when, just for a moments, Macdonald didn’t seem completely in control. These little lapses were all the more surprising when compared to the crispness that characterised much of the Hallé’s playing.

Shostakovich was just 19 when his first symphony was performed and it’s a fascinating insight into the composer’s development – the influence of the Russian romantics and the traditionalism of the Petrograd Conservatory is there, but so too is the sharp-edged vibrancy of Shostakovich’s own voice. The third movement, particularly, shares some of the richness of Rachmaninov’s style, so that the jagged defiance of Shostakovich’s own voice became even more surprising when one remembers that it was written a decade before the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Whilst Britten brilliantly illustrates the musical characteristics and styles that we expect from each instrument in the orchestra, Shostakovich frequently turns our expectations upside down, so here the bassoon is heroic and the flutes become shrill; or he pairs up unusual combinations of instruments – a brilliantly exciting double bass and bassoon passage in the second movement and the insistent buzzing of the highest piano notes set against the horns.

Britten’s piece, of course, puts every section of the orchestra under the spotlight, giving each instrument the chance to introduce itself. The oboes have a Baroque-like duet, the clarinet gets rapid jazzy scales, there’s a comic oompah passage for the brass and even the timpani get a chance to play the theme. The Halle’s percussion section were fantastically well coordinated during their spotlight moments in the Britten, and again in the Shostakovich they had more exposure, for this concert included not one but two extended timpani solos. There was also an extremely well-controlled drum crescendo that led into the dark opening of the last movement.

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was given a modest, unassuming performance by young pianist Andrew Tyson – no showing off, no fireworks, just assured, confident playing. At times he was too modest, accompanying the orchestra rather than taking the lead, but when it came to the famous 18th variation, he created something beautifully intimate, and the strings caught this mood, giving a big sigh to their answering phrase. The Hallé strings were, for the most part clean and clear, particularly in the Britten, but sometimes the violins were too quiet – more of the sound that they made during this Rachmaninov variation would have been welcome. The clarity worked well in the double basses though and their exposed work in the Shostakovich was crisp and nimble, with none of the muddiness that sometimes comes from a large orchestral bass section.

What this concert particularly illustrated was the strong similarities in style between the three composers: glittering orchestration, supremely clever melodic inventiveness and above all power and energy, which the Hallé flung at us with high spirits.

***11