One of the pleasures of the BBC Proms is to survey the current state of our regional orchestras. After a brilliant performance by Vassily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra a fortnight ago, I was really looking forward to the Hallé's visit with Sir Mark Elder on Saturday. With a balanced programme of Berlioz, Elgar, Beethoven's “Eroica” Symphony and a work by Helen Grime, their Associate Composer, the prospects were good. Yet, at the end of the concert, I felt curiously unfulfilled.

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd

Let me make this clear: the Hallé is an excellent orchestra with great technical discipline and a warm and polished sound, especially in the strings. There are some weaknesses in the woodwind section, particularly in their projection in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall, but the principal oboe shone especially in the Beethoven. The brass has a mellow and rounded sound and they displayed versatility in the Berlioz and Grime's Near Midnight. So, my dissatisfaction stemmed more from the interpretative side.

Berlioz's overture Le corsaire is not the easiest of concert openers, although it can be effective. Elder and the Hallé performed with technical precision, strong articulation and clarity (even in the tricky acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall) but didn't bring out enough of the flair and swagger necessary for a work about a wild sea-adventurer.

They were altogether more successful in their next piece, Elgar's song-cycle Sea Pictures. Elgar's work has been explored extensively by Elder and the orchestra during his directorship and they portrayed the different colours and moods of the sea with wonderful subtlety. The soloist was the popular mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, who gave an engaging performance and had the audience really listening to every word. As is well known, the work was originally composed for Clara Butt, a contralto (a rare breed these days) who would have had a fuller sound in the low-lying melodies, but Coote compensated with a sense of nobility and drama, especially in the last song “The Swimmer”.

The second half opened with the London premiere of Helen Grime’s 10-minute nocturnal exploration Near Midnight premièred by the Hallé in Manchester in 2012. It was a solidly constructed piece with attractive use of the brass section – the piece was littered with fanfare-like outbursts which seemed like church bells cutting through the midnight silence. Each of the four main sections has its own sonority, especially the lyrical third section, but they were seamlessly connected. The orchestra, especially the brass section, gave an assured, fine performance.

After this contemporary work, the heroic E flat major chords of Beethoven’s Third Symphony came as a huge aural shock – but a very different sort of shock the Viennese audience would have had at the work’s première. In that sense, we can never listen like the audience of Beethoven’s time, even though bringing back the historical performance practice can help our understanding of the music.

In general, I am a supporter of “historically informed performance”. However on this occasion, somehow Mark Elder’s historically informed approach on modern instruments failed to convince me, which was disappointing because I am usually a great admirer of his conducting. Violins were divided on either side and even the double basses were split – “so that they are on both sides, making a wider circle of strings: it brings a particular immediacy and attack” says Elder in the programme. Maybe this worked in the Bridgewater Hall, but such details were unfortunately lost in the acoustics of the Albert Hall (or at least where I was sitting in the stalls). The orchestra played with pace, precision and detailed articulation, but often they sounded too discliplined and neither the punchiness of Beethoven’s music or the emerging Romanticism came across satisfactorily. There were also some balance issues and at times the woodwind seemed to be drowned by the strings.

The first movement felt quite measured and despite the swift tempo and sharp articulation, Beethoven’s bold harmony shifts seemed underexplored. The Marcia funebre was mostly restrained - not too funereal  -  until Elder brought emotional gravity in the fugal section, taken at a slightly slower pace. The oboe solos were beautifully and poignantly played by Stéphane Rancourt. In the Scherzo, the orchestra finally seemed to liven up and let the sounds project around the hall, led by the valiant horns in the Trio section. The final movement was well paced but again I felt Elder kept too tight a rein. In many aspects it was a fine performance yet I left the hall pondering why I wasn't fulfilled.