When this last concert of January was first planned by the Hallé and their partners in our Manchester Beethovenfest (probably around two years ago), it can hardly have occurred to anyone that the strains of the Ode to Joy setting in the Choral Symphony would be heard on the eve of the day we left the European Union.
Some in the audience were aware of it last night, though, and it was hard to tell whether the standing ovation which greeted the end of the piece was purely in tribute to a great performance (though it was) or also in memoriam of an era of shared European identity.
It was good to see a sell-out concert at the Bridgewater Hall again, anyway, and to hear the ‘Manchester roar’ that Charles Hallé used to be familiar with, again arising from the assembled throng. Members of the Association of British Orchestras – whose presence helped to fill those seats – on their annual conference, did at least get a sample of what we do best.
Sir Mark Elder mixed some slightly less familiar Beethoven in with the box office draws for this programme: the Elegischer Gesang, performed by the Hallé Youth Choir (with members of the RNCM Chamber Choir) and strings of the orchestra, being one serendipity. They brought lovely mellow tone to this most mellow of farewells.
The Hallé Choir gave us the final Angels’ Chorus from Christ on the Mount of Olives, too. The whole oratorio is coming on 9th April, so it was a trailer – sung with such dramatic levels of contrast that the vocal lines were down to whispers at times, but an appetizer without doubt.
Drama is what Sir Mark does superbly well, as the opening Leonore no. 3 overture demonstrated. Its initial bars were distant and mysterious, with palpably unnerving stresses; its first main theme thrilling in its optimistic energy; the scene of the distant trumpet calls well caught in its hymn-like confidence combined with jittery unease. And in the later section we heard a sparky solo from the Hallé’s new principal flute, Amy Yule – her colleagues the leaders of oboe and bassoon were to shine alongside her equally in the Ruins of Athens overture later.
The Ninth Symphony is one Sir Mark has conducted on a number of big occasions in the past with the Hallé. This was one of the best, as its tantalizing sense of anticipation – grim and anxious in the first movement, busy and cheerful in the second, serene and exalted in the third – led to a finale that was multi-faceted and heartfelt. The four soloists (Elizabeth Atherton, Sarah Castle, David Butt Philip and Neal Davies) were placed behind the orchestra just in front of the chorus, which lent their voices a kind of aural halo, and the playing of the Hallé Orchestra, led by Zoe Beyers, had all the contrasts of crispness and sweetness Sir Mark evokes from his players so well. Yes, it was a great performance.
Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé