tue 21/05/2024

Prom 16: Hallé, Elder review - a mighty Russian journey | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 16: Hallé, Elder review - a mighty Russian journey

Prom 16: Hallé, Elder review - a mighty Russian journey

Masterful Mancunians find serenity amid 20th-century storms

Steppe changes: Sir Mark ElderAll images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Perhaps music and politics should always stay at a decent arm’s length; in the modern world, they seldom can. The Hallé’s annual visit to the Proms presented an all-Russian bill and closed with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: his much-disputed “Soviet artist’s response to just criticism” and a classic instance of the collision between art and power as, in 1937, the composer struggled to survive Stalin’s potentially fatal disapproval.

Before the interval, the opening work’s cast-list reminded us that current geopolitical tensions also surface in the concert hall. Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells, completed in 1913, could hardly hug Russian musical and ecclesiastical traditions closer. We heard it at the Royal Albert Hall, however, with the individual vocal parts taken by Ukrainian and Armenian singers. Some Ukrainian institutions have requested that their foreign friends refuse to play Russian music in solidarity. This reclamation of the aggressor’s canon by performers from across a wider Russophone or Russian-influenced world suggests another way forward. The Bells makes a loose translation of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe the foundation for an expansive cycle-of-life journey, from the ecstatic sleigh-bells of childhood through happy wedding bells, the “loud alarum bells” of danger, and the “mournful iron bells” of death and lamentation. Sir Mark Elder, conducting Manchester’s (musical) finest with all the unfussy authority and relaxed precision of his long, lustrous tenure, drew clear dramatic lines between the full-spectrum orchestral colours of separate sections – with his many-hued percussion rightly to the fore – and the grandeur, explosive or hushed, of a huge choral horde peopled by the combined forces of the Hallé Choir and the BBC Symphony Chorus (pictured above). Knife-sharp entries and finely judged dynamic contrasts saw the almost-Mahlerian shadowed innocence of the sleigh-bell movement climax in a great wave of choral sound. Sensual languor in the rhapsodic Hallé strings (led by Roberto Ruisi) marked the bells of nuptial bliss, with soprano Mané Galoyan (pictured below) robust and radiant above. With its vocal thunderclaps, slashing brass, doom-laden percussion and stuttering rhythms, the dissonant outbursts of Elder’s alarm-bells – with its refined tenor contribution by Dmytro Popov – made me realise that Rachmaninov’s piece shares a date of completion with a different sort of Russian life-and-death epic: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Elder, never frantic on the podium, somehow managed to conjure a mood that tempered menace with serenity. After the shattering choral coup of the movement’s end, that serenity returned in the poignant cor anglais solo (Thomas Davey) that ushers in the elegiac gravity of the finale. Here, the ardent, noble and assured baritone of Andrei Kymach (first-prize winner at Cardiff Singer of the World in 2019; pictured below) guided us through several stages of mourning. Sombre brass and richly melancholic strings accompanied the chorus as Elder’s spacious tempi gave space and impact to successive moments of anguish, desolation and resignation. As the last bells tolled, he found a mellow majesty – far from melodrama – in the most agitated passages.No conductor can avoid spells of frenzy, even panic, in Shostakovich’s Fifth. But again, Elder and the Hallé sounded polished and measured even when the horrors of Stalin’s Great Terror seem to loom behind this score. For that reason, devotees of edgy, impulsive or raucous Shostakovich interpretations might have found him a little too well-mannered. Yet his phrasing and emphases let Shostakovich’s kaleidoscopic instrumental textures shine, with every Hallé desk firm, bright and packed with character.

Elder took the “Moderato” of the first movement in earnest, even sedately, with lyrical restraint from the strings. The quietly demonic dance of its development showcased savoury flavours all around the stage, from Gemma Beeson’s keyboards and Amy Yule’s flute to Ewan Easton’s utterly charismatic tuba. The antic swing and nervous pizzicato of the Allegretto scherzo brought another of the evening’s Mahlerian reminders, with a droll solo from Ruisi. The Largo, which so moved the symphony’s first Russian listeners, saw Elder’s sheer gravitas and pinpoint attention to the textures of its eight string groups produce a sound of cultivated splendour, with magical tremolos and tenderly expressive contributions from the woodwinds (above all, Stéphane Rancourt's oboe). For followers of the Russian sacred tradition, attentive to every echo of Orthodox liturgy, Elder's Largo might have lacked wholehearted passion and liturgical solemnity. But it was a pleasure to watch Elder achieve with the flick of his fine paintbrush what other conductors might have wished to lay on with a trowel. As for the jubilant finale, sometimes read as a mock-endorsement of Stalinist uplift, the brass dazzled and swaggered – but Elder never went in for unalloyed rejoicing or delirious pace. He let us savour the distinctive shadings of the score – with trumpets and horns both outstanding – without smothering it in brash poster-paint colours. Focused and balanced, his reading suspended those irresolvable questions about the “ironic” nature of the symphony’s upbeat moods or the critical overtones of the stormier sections. We didn’t need to worry too much when, or if, dissonance means dissidence. Here, the music not the politics came first. 

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