The second orchestral concert in the Bridgewater Hall’s Echoes of a Mountain Song series was given by the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder. The first two pieces depicted the mountains of Norway but apart from that they could hardly have been less alike. 

Except for his early ballet scores, few of the prolific Stravinsky’s works are performed very often and so it was a pleasure to hear his Four Norwegian Moods of 1942, originally intended for use in a film set in Nazi-occupied Norway. The four short pieces, strong on rhythm and melody, are based on Norwegian folksongs (found in a second-hand bookshop in Los Angeles) and turned into a neoclassical suite. Elder and the orchestra gave a crisp performance suggesting clear mountain air.

Next we had a major piece by Delius: his Song of the High Hills, which Sir Mark introduced from the platform. He made clear his enthusiasm for the composer and this work. To those of us who have heard his previous performances of Delius with the Hallé, this was no surprise. The Song of the High Hills depicts the climbing of a mountain in Norway with a pause on the way, reaching the top and returning down as the light fades, but alongside the physical activity Delius evokes the sense of the grandeur of nature and man’s awe in its presence. Given the extravagant scoring of the work, it is not surprising that it is rarely played. As well as a huge orchestra it requires a choir and two soloists, even though they only join the orchestra for the middle part of the work. The excellent Hallé Choir took on the wordless choral part with aplomb. There were only a few moments when the two soloists, soprano Malin Christensson and tenor Robin Tritschler, could be distinguished from the choir with whom they were sitting, but perhaps that was the point: all the sounds, whether from soloists, choir or orchestra, blended together to produce a glorious sound that could not have been created by anyone but Delius. Elder managed the ever-changing soundscape with the skill and commitment of a master of the performance of this elusive composer. Occasionally a remarkable effect emerged from the huge body of players: a tinkling effect from the celesta, calls between two horns, the eerie first entry of the singers (four tenors). From the glorious surge of sound from the full orchestra and choir at the climax to the quiet, peaceful ending, this was a great performance.

The second half of the concert began with Rachmaninov’s Three Russian Songs Op.41. This is a late work of Rachmaninov’s, written in the USA in 1926 when he had been away from his native Russia for many years and was devoting much of his time to performing rather than composing. These three songs for choir and orchestra are his versions of genuine Russian folksongs, the first for men alone, the second for women and the third for both. For much of the time the choir sings in unison, keeping close to the folk origins of the songs. The Hallé Choir again demonstrated their strengths and gave spirited performances. It was a pity that the programme gave only a translation of the words and not the Russian text for the audience to follow.

The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s “symphonic fantasia” Francesca da Rimini, a tone poem based on an episode from Dante’s Inferno in which the poet encounters Francesca and her lover who are condemned to Hell for adultery and are subjected to unceasing whirlwinds. Although frequently performed, this was perhaps the most astonishing of the works on the programme. From the atmospheric opening, with low strings and brass, the tension increased to a stunning representation of the winds of Hell with amazing sounds that sounded as modern as anything by Stravinsky or Bartók. The tension lessened for the central episode with its beautiful clarinet solo, only for the whirlwind to return for a stunning conclusion to the piece and the concert. Elder and Hallé played with total commitment in this breathtaking performance.