HALLE DVORAK FESTIVAL Bridgewater Hall
Sir Mark Elder introduced the first of the Hallé’s Dvořák festival concerts on Thursday, and chose a programme uniting the beginning and (nearly) the end of the composer’s career.
Four of the Moravian Duets – early two-parts-and-piano settings of folk song texts – were confidently sung by the Hallé Youth Choir, conducted by Richard Wilberforce and accompanied by Paul Janes, with a nicely timed touch of mystery to close the third and a beautifully tender and restrained ending to the final one.
The real enlightenment of the concert’s first half, however, came with Francesco Piemontesi’s playing of the piano concerto. I heard Stephen Hough do it last season in Macclesfield, shortly before his concert and recording with the CBSO, and that was very good, but this was something special. It’s a long work, packed with melodic ideas and needing a clear sense of its harmonic and structural shape to be really satisfying.
Sir Mark brings that awareness in abundance. There was a warm and individual sonority from the outset (with the principal clarinet of the night, Sergio Castello Lopez, making a distinctive contribution), a singing shape to every melody, and a keen sense of detailed effect.
More than that, there were dramatic contrasts as the tender, meditative episodes contrasted with the vigorous, open-air quality that Dvořák’s music captured so effectively – a lilt of dance and fun in the finale, particularly. Piemontesi made light of the technical issues that daunt many soloists, introducing the lighter themes engagingly and making the writing sound the most sparky and sparkly ever done for piano.
One of the fascinations of this early Dvořák comes in the characteristic details of figuration, harmonic progression, texture and orchestration that we recognise as familiar features from his greater, later works. The slow movement of the concerto even begins with the same four notes as the ninth symphony’s ‘Hovis’ theme.
And the pentatonic melody that dominates his trilogy of overtures from the 1890s – originally called Nature, Life and Love, though we now know the middle one as Carnival – could have been written in his youth.
Sir Mark did us a favour in putting the three together as originally intended, because that ‘Nature’ theme, though only glimpsed in the ‘Carnival’ music, opens the first and tragically dominates the final one. It’s as if Dvořák was trying out the idea of a cyclical symphony before he (one of the few to do so) really got it right in the ‘New World’.
The Hallé played all three with great distinction, and Sir Mark’s dramatic instincts brought the last – linked to the Othello story – to an operatic-style climax.
But I couldn’t help thinking that Carnival is not just a mid-work scherzo but simply an inspiration above the other two. I’ve never heard quite such an exuberant ending to it.