Osvaldo Golijov is not a name frequently encountered in concert programmes, though The Boston Globe once described his St Mark Passion (La Pasión según San Marcos) as “an indisputably great composition”. His Last Round, written for a nine-part string orchestra or alternatively a nonet, was designed as a tribute to Piazzolla, who “left us without saying goodbye”. The pugilistic reference in the title is reflected in the first movement marked Movido, urgente which already has some of that Bacchian fury that Tovey identified in the Finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. There has to be a feeling that the wheels are just about to come off, that the cart will go careering out of control down the road. Without that sense of imminent danger the Bartok-like motoric energy can merely sound mechanical.

Tabita Berglund conducts The Hallé
© The Hallé

Tabita Berglund, herself a former cellist and making a welcome return to The Hallé, knows what an orchestra needs in order to build a feeling of mounting frenzy. Dispensing with a baton, her expressive hands and arms scooped the air, and with downward pumping she applied the necessary compressions to the collective chest of the orchestra. Stabbing fingers identified moments of urgency, flat palms were deployed as a cutting edge. This is scenic music of high quality, the senses left tingling with all the qualities of a passionate tango. 

The second movement Muertes Del Ángel (Deaths of the Angel) treads warily along a narrow tightrope of sound, the recurring little fluctuations suggestive of physical imbalance, a frisson at the thought of possible disaster on the high wire (“Will they…won’t they?”), the etiolations towards the end carrying echoes of the dying exhalations of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The entire composition is conceived as an idealised bandoneón, the moaning wheeze of that instrument, both seductive and sarcastic, mirrored in the string writing. 

Described in a recent BBC interview as “a hurricane”, Berglund had chosen for her main work what she described as “Beethoven gone bonkers”. Drawing a parallel with the composer’s situation between May and September 1809, when Vienna was in lockdown because of the Napoleonic Wars, she characterised his Seventh Symphony as the spirit of a post-lockdown party, energy unleashed with ecstatic dancing on the tables of pubs. There was indeed an abundance of kinesis in Berglund’s reading. The Scherzo was a true Presto, articulation being sacrificed for a pure expression of euphoria, and I particularly enjoyed the Trio, with little nudges to the string phrasing and prominent trumpets contributing to the mounting tension.

Tabita Berglund conducts The Hallé
© The Hallé

Young conductors don’t always manage to satisfy all expectations. Two things strike me as critical in this symphony. As the coda to the opening movement builds, there should be an even more powerful emphasis on the lower strings as they groan and grind, almost orgiastically, towards that moment of release. Works written in A major in Beethoven’s day offered potential for unusually high horn writing, much in evidence in the two outer movements. Berglund unaccountably chose not to let matters rip.

This concert, which had been given twice to socially distanced audiences a week ago but was performed here to an empty hall, had opened with the “Tribschen Idyll, with Fidi’s Bird-Song and Orange Sunrise”. Have you lost me, dear reader? This was actually the original inscription on Wagner’s manuscript of what later became known as the Siegfried Idyll. So much for choosing the right title – short and pithy ones usually work best – for a new composition. But then, what Wagner wrote as a birthday present to his wife was never intended to be anything other than a private piece of sensory magic.

 

 This performance was reviewed from The Hallé's video stream

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