Here was shrewd small-scale orchestral programming; a funeral march, a piece in memory of that work’s composer, six songs of love and loss, and a lament for the end of civilization. The tyranny of transience, as memorialised by four composers between 1911 and 1977.

Sir Mark Elder conducts The Hallé
© The Hallé

Britten’s Russian Funeral uses a song that Shostakovich also used in his Eleventh Symphony, and its solemn tread for brass and percussion, ideally paced by Sir Mark Elder, made a compelling seven minute opener. When Britten died, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, who had recently discovered Britten’s music, felt moved to write Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings and one tubular bell. Its overlapping canonic lines, with a regular clang from the bell, build a complex threnody from simple means in just five minutes. It sounds as if it plays itself, but if the string players found the distancing made it harder to listen to each other, Elder again found the right tempo for this haunting piece. It was a pity the last tolling of the bell was too timid to allow an effective fade into silence. 

Roderick Williams and The Hallé
© The Hallé

George Butterworth’s Housman settings are all the more resonant for our knowledge that the composer was killed on the Somme. (Housman’s soldiers are redcoats in the Boer war, but his verse was found in many a kitbag by 1914.) Roderick Williams’ orchestration was commissioned by The Hallé for this premiere, and is very effective in using the colours of the reduced orchestra, including an arresting harp flourish at the outset. That opening song is marked sempre rubato, requiring a flexibility easier to achieve with one accompanist than twenty, but Williams and Elder worked hand in glove. “Roddy” Williams approaches national treasure status for good artistic reasons, and his singing here was impeccable. In a work he has sung so often, there was no trace of routine.

Strauss’ Metamorphosen, the greatest composition on this programme, was provoked by the destruction of the Vienna Opera, and much else, by 1945. It began here a bit slowly but Elder soon found a vital, elastic pulse for the string polyphony, in a performance of soaring eloquence in the faster sections yet freighted with sorrow by the end.

Its theme of the passing of everything from cherry blossom to opera houses made this a programme for the artistic perils of our times. But “All things fall and are built again” runs Yeats’s refrain, and so it seems with music-making like this.

This performance was reviewed from The Hallé's video stream