St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7 October 2016
The Hallé Orchestra
Piano: Benjamin Grosvenor
Conductor: Sir Mark Elder
Dvořák: The Golden Spinning Wheel
Liszt: Piano Concerto No 2 in A
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F (The Pastoral)
Music written in the 19th century and earlier is now capable of being played as it was at the time, given some research and some educated guessing. Indeed, the authentic-music movement once threatened to overshadow all performances played on ‘modern’ instuments. In addition to an exaggerated portamento in the strings, and some eccentricities of tempi, 20th-century symphony orchestra performances were anything but historically accurate, not that anyone today really knows what the music sounded like, or that the originals are by definition ‘better’. Moreover, since the end of World War II, the arrangement of an orchestra’s sections on the concert platform has been virtually standard.
So when, at the start of this concert, the Hallé’s six double-basses elevated themselves at the rear of the band for Dvořák’s tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel, displacing the percussion but not John Abendstern’s timps, we knew that conductor Sir Mark Elder was making some point. Changes were more pronounced for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for which the basses and cellos were divided, each half occupying a position ‘twixt first violins and violas on the left and violas and seconds on the right, in order to give every member of the orchestra a more intimate sense of the music’s sonorous bass lines. These were essentially matters for the musicians rather than the audience, which nevertheless must have benefited if Elder’s deployments worked in producing more integrated playing. By the way, he praised St. David’s Hall as being ‘up there among the best’. From a world-traveller, that was high commendation.
It’s now a truism to say that, since he arrived in Manchester seventeen years ago, Elder has raised the orchestra from the doldrums to the level of its glory days under Sir John Barbirolli. Evidently this has been accomplished by taking on younger players, and no small part of his achievement has been to improve and maintain standards while handling the new intake. The breadth of experience in the ranks – leader Lyn Fletcher, trumpeter Gareth Small, percussionist David Hext, harpist Marie Leenhardt, for examples – has helped steady the ship as the newcomers have embarked. The results were nowhere more apparent than in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.2, in which the quicksilver soloist was Benjamin Grosvenor, darting in and out of the music in commendably non-bombastic mode and thereby exerting some kind of magical control over the proceedings.
It was the work with which he made his BBC Proms debut as the youngest soloist to appear on the opening night. Here, he helped turn its admixtures into a seamless continuity, especially in the cadenza links between the concerto’s sections that help create its single movement. Rarely is this work so convincingly mediated from the keyboard with care, lightness of touch, temperance, and musical intelligence. It were as if the pianist were presiding over the work’s thematic metamorphoses, even though there were times, particularly in the finale, when he could do little about the orchestral swagger as Elder and the orchestra weren’t in a mood to tone it down. That final march, when given its head in this way, is the epitome of transformation. Could it be the tune we heard played so innocently at the start? It surely could.
While Elder’s internal re-arrangements were made primarily to his and the orchestra’s satisfaction, the other concerns of the ‘period music’ movement – such as pitch, tempi, and articulation – are not the same as those of a modern symphony orchestra arguably doing something of which the composer would have approved, albeit in Beethoven’s case grudgingly. The woodwind section, however, in two tiers at the rear where the basses were for the Dvořák work, did have an extra perkiness in the Pastoral Symphony if not the quasi-autonomy of its harmonie counterparts in an ‘authentic’ band. Orchestras as good as the Hallé in all departments revel in the symphony’s kind of scene-painting as much as they do in the Czech composer’s story-telling.
But for Elder, this wander through the Viennese countryside reflected human mood rather than any pathetic fallacy, the storm scene internalised as a feeling rather than an observed fact, a piece of abstract music in the panoply of rural scenes. Nor was the journey lingered over as in some tempting travelogue; this was playing of urgency, concentration and inevitability, the strings ample and those bass lines making themselves felt in situ. As for the second movement’s birdsong (clarinet, oboe and flute) and the final break in the weather, real and internal, here was an orchestra at its eloquent best.
The Golden Spinning Wheel represents Dvořák the picture-maker in a lengthy symphonic poem keen to follow the story on which it’s based rather than to express any extrapolated human feeling, though it’s a grisly tale (by Karel Erben), with a damsel’s mutilated body at its centre. Goodness knows what Richard Strauss would have made of it: not Dvořák’s romanticised and suggestive treatment, for sure, with its musically-rendered wheel seeming to spin on to some aspect of the story a tad less dark. It’s not that long since the Hallé played this work for the first time, at a Bridgewater Hall concert devoted to the explication and performance of the composer’s three symphonic poems based on Erben, here as grim as Grimm. On this occasion, it was unfolded with the ease, clarity, cool temperament and intimation of huge reserves with which this orchestra, and all great orchestras, are associated.
Header photo of Benjamin Grosvenor credit Decca, Sophie Wright