thu 22/03/2018

Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

New season premieres a war work by Britten, paired with Shostakovich's siege symphony

Thrilling: Sir Mark Elder conducts the HalléRussell Hart

A “world premiere” of music written by Benjamin Britten just over 70 years ago? Whence this treasure trove of long-lost musical gold? Well, under the title of An American in England, in 1942 Britten wrote the score for a BBC/CBS co-produced series of six radio drama documentaries for transatlantic transmission to make Americans appreciate this country’s war effort. It was jointly commissioned by the War Office and performed by a 62-piece RAF band in full dress uniform.

To kick off their new season, the Hallé burrowed into the archive and focused on three of these broadcasts: London by Clipper, Dover to London and, particularly, Women in Britain, giving the music its first public performance. They also brought in Samuel West to read from the original script.

Britten was in the USA when war broke out, but in 1941, against advice for his own safety, he sailed back to England in a naval convoy. Being a pacifist, he registered as a conscientious objector, but put his skills to work in this way. The incidental music for these programmes, broadcast from a secret location (actually the BBC’s Maida Vale studios), resulted.

The astonishing first movement out-Boleros Bolero

Apart from the novelty, was it worth reviving it? On the whole, yes, not especially for the music but to recapture a landmark in radio. Essentially, the music punctuated the script, in which an American journalist in England tells of the way the war is affecting ordinary people. He describes Manchester, its building “blackened by greed”. He talks about the escalators “to hell” in the London Underground. And he tells how in this war women don’t stay at home, but do what was previously men’s work and do it better, working as welders and bus conductors, working in the factories and on the land and so on. So, it recaptures that time and the words prompt the music, which is picturesque, tune-filled, descriptive and often triumphal. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Interestingly, that RAF band had two outstanding horn players: Norman Del Mar and the 21-year-old Dennis Brain (pictured right). Britten wrote a solo for Brain in Women in Britain and that led him later to write the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for him.

The programmes were first broadcast in August 1942, three days after Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, was first heard by the survivors of that besieged city. With an enlarged orchestra, including a battery of brass on the balcony behind, Sir Mark Elder was in his element in a work of this scale. He punched the air with his left hand like a southpaw landing a sucker punch – and the brass roared out. He produced a full, free and yet disciplined performance.

Being under the spell of the music, you have to keep reminding yourself that Shostakovich was trying to capture the awful loss of life and suffering during the siege. Of course, later he said that he wrote it as a cri de coeur against Stalin’s atrocities.

Originally, Shostakovich labelled the four movements War, Reminiscence, Russian Vastness and Victory. No matter, the first long movement is astonishing. It out-Boleros Bolero and the effect of military threat is dramatic. Elder captured the feeling of the slow movement particularly well. The big statement with the horns, sounding like an organ, moves into a gentler mood with double harp, lower strings and flute over plucked accompaniment. We’re being given a vision of the city at twilight.

As the end approaches, we sense that dreadful loss will be overcome. Elder drove his players to a build-up of energy to full throttle, urgent, climactic, martial and, yes, victorious. A thrilling start to the new season.

Apart from the novelty, was it worth reviving it? On the whole, yes, not especially for the music but to recapture a landmark in radio


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters