This latest concert given by The Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall comprised four diverse and substantial pieces. Presiding was the young German conductor Clemens Schuldt who has performed with the orchestra before but not in its Manchester home. The soloist was the eminent pianist Angela Hewitt, a popular visitor. Everything came together to make for an uplifting experience, and it was evident throughout that Schuldt was at the helm of a virtuoso orchestra.

Clemens Schuldt conducts The Hallé
© Tom Stephens

The Sinfonia d Requiem is one of Britten’s few major works for orchestra alone. Each of the three connected movements (played without breaks) is given a heading from the Catholic mass. The work’s origins lie in a commission to commemorate the founding of the Japanese Empire, but it was rejected because of its references to Christianity and because of its sombre character. It is more significant that Britten dedicated it to the memory of his parents and created it as an anti-war piece (it was written right at the beginning of the Second World War). 

The huge orchestra filled the stage and they seemed to revel in the extremes of loud and quiet. From the very first low chords, it was a gripping performance. The second movement, the Dies irae, was remarkable for its orchestral effects such as the three flutter-tonguing flutes and the way themes flew from one instrument to another across the orchestra, creating a frantic but dazzling dance of death. In the final Requiem aeternam, however, the anger gave way to peace and a quiet hopeful ending.

The smaller orchestra and the sound of the piano in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor were a striking contrast, but this was another serious work. The dramatic, even operatic, opening and dark-hued continuation demonstrated why this concerto remained popular in the 19th century when many others were neglected. In the first movement in particular we felt Mozart on the cusp of Romanticism. Hewitt’s playing complemented that of the orchestra with great finesse. All her solos were expressive rather than showy. Every note counted and her rapport with the orchestra and conductor was evident. 

Angela Hewitt and The Hallé
© Tom Stephens

The second movement begins with one of Mozart’s most sublime melodies played by the piano alone. Hewitt’s performance was breathtaking. The finale began turbulently but not without an element of humour, and then towards the end it was as if the sun had come out. Hewitt’s smile matched the changed mood of the music in the longed-for happy ending.

After the interval we had Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Aeriality, a remarkable work written in 2010-2011 for large orchestra, playing very quietly for most of the time. Schuldt introduced the piece to the audience, inviting us to let our thoughts wander to a different place while we were listening to it. He suggested the landscape of the composer’s native Iceland or an image of outer space. The composer’s programme note states that the title “refers to the state of gliding thought the air with nothing or little to hold onto”. Whatever its ‘meaning’ this is a stunningly beautiful piece full of magical and atmospheric sounds. At about 12 minutes long it just felt too short.

To conclude we had Richard Strauss’ early tone poem Death and Transfiguration in which he depicts in musical terms an ill man approaching death, remembering his past, dying and achieving a state of “transfiguration”. Schuldt and the orchestra delivered a searing performance of another profoundly serious but in the end uplifting work. The surges of sound were magnificent; the quiet conclusion was transcendent.