HALLE ORCHESTRA Bridgewater Hall
The final concert of the Hallé’s normal Thursday series (there is, of course, still the Dvořák festival to come) was conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, their principal guest conductor, and offered several variations from the standard formula – if there is one.
It had a choral first half and a symphonic second half, for one thing – Bach’s Magnificat and Bach arranged by Stravinsky to begin with, and then Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ symphony (no. 3).
The Stravinsky was a reworking of Bach’s Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’, a typically ingenious approach to baroque music from a time before authenticity became important (the mid-1950s). Choir and a small orchestra serve up the original contrapuntal lines, with some relishes added, making cantus firmus very firm at all times and offering all the right notes (and then some), even if not in the original right relationships.
The Hallé Choir sang neatly and securely, and it made a stimulating prelude to the main dish of the day, Bach’s Magnificat. Showing the breadth of his skills, Ryan Wigglesworth was part-time harpsichord continuo player as well as conductor for this, but if that was a gesture towards the manner in which the music might first have been heard, it was about as far in that direction as things went.
Bach would no doubt have expected a very small group of singers (with soloists emerging from the choir) and a small orchestra, too, but this performance was much closer to the grand (and rich) Victorian tradition of massed performers and had four invited soloists. Nothing wrong with that for a hall as large as the Bridgewater, but it does demand a different approach from that of the small-scale baroque specialist.
(Stravinsky compensated for the absence of 18th century articulation technique by putting in a harpist, stabbing interjections and in other ways – now it was up to the army of performers to master the textures on their own!).
There were brief moments of diffident attack, but the big sound was used to great dramatic effect in Fecit potentiam and made an imposing pair of final choruses (the chorus also took on the trio of Suscepit Israel, with real success).
The soloists – Sophie Bevan (soprano), Christopher Ainslie (counter-tenor), Andrew Staples (tenor) and Christopher Purves (baritone) – are all versatile and distinguished singers, and the two middle voices shone brightest, with both strength and flexibility in delivery.
The Schumann symphony was further testimony to Ryan Wigglesworth’s gifts. I heard his reading of Tchaikovsky’s second last week, and it’s clear he has a relaxed and effective rapport with the Hallé. This time it was a scrupulously accurate reading of the score that yielded enormous benefits: sonorous and smooth throughout, wind and brass choirs blended and well contrasted with the strings in the Scherzo, and with a touch of mystery after all the grandeur of the fourth movement. The horns and trumpets were on top form for the finale, whose bouncing rhythms were a tonic.