One of the advantages of streaming platforms and the kind of rubric often seen and heard in other media (“If you liked that, you’ll like…”) is the way listeners can be guided onto paths of discovery. It’s often a simple realisation that Composer X significantly influenced Composer Y. And the grand-daddy of them all, at least in Russian music, surely has to be Rimsky-Korsakov. He taught both Rachmaninov, who dedicated his tone poem The Rock to his teacher, and Stravinsky, so linking these three composers was an imaginative choice by The Hallé and its music director Sir Mark Elder in their final concert of the current season.

Sir Mark Elder conducting The Hallé
© The Hallé

This kind of programme played to Elder’s strengths: music which did not depend on much intervention or interpretative input. Always with an eye to the main chance, Stravinsky famously said that his works needed to be conductor-proof so that they could be played by any conductor and any orchestra. Gentle shaping, smiling rather than scowling at his players, is Elder’s thing, which is why the Berceuse towards the end of the Firebird suite came off rather better than the Infernal Dance in which the evil was controlled rather than unleashed, the last ounce of venomous bite missing from the reptilian swirls of sound.

Some precision of ensemble in rapid passagework was difficult to achieve in a very socially distanced orchestra spread out over the entire platform of the Bridgewater Hall, with eight brass players tucked away in the choir stalls. I also missed a degree of string opulence in the earlier pieces, but in the Stravinsky the colours sparkled magically in the instrumental solos (Laurence Rogers a very secure horn, Amy Yule a stylish flute). Elder’s dovetailing of the chattering woodwind in the Dance of the Princesses with its string interjections and brief syncopations from silvery trumpets, suggestive of a murmuration of starlings set against gently billowing clouds, was a delight to the ear.

What was additionally satisfying was the tasteful video direction by Jonathan Haswell, using long and lingering camera shots of conductor and individual players, and providing narrative subtitles for the Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky pieces. I particularly enjoyed the references to “the magic squirrel cracking nuts” and “the 33 knights donned with golden helmets emerging from the sea” in the third movement of The Tale of Tsar Saltan suite, where Elder relished the softer music with delicate colours from harp, keyboard instruments and not least the birdsong effects from the entire woodwind choir. 

I sometimes feel that composers are not always at their best when choosing titles for their pieces. The early Rachmaninov work The Rock has little to link it to the Lermontov poem or indeed Chekhov short story often cited as inspiration. To my mind the central climax and its preparation have all the makings of a violent storm. This is preternaturally Romantic tone painting underpinned by the dark undertones for which the composer later became renowned. As Elder commented in his introduction to this work (another nice touch in the overall direction), “there are so many fingerprints of the mature Rachmaninov just round the corner”. If the neurosis was slightly underplayed, the delicacy of much of the writing (horn solo against tremolo strings and then an exquisite flute solo) contributed markedly to the richness of the orchestral tapestry uncovered by Elder and his players. And what a willing pupil Rachmaninov must have been: as the central climax approached, shivery spells in the upper strings, agitated rhythms hinting at gathering storm-clouds, gear changes accentuated by a prominent tambourine. Here was colour, atmosphere and imaginative invention in spades.


 

 This performance was reviewed from The Hallé's video stream

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