The most substantial of Sir Mark Elder’s three opening programmes with the Hallé for the 2017-18 season came last (after an Opus One set and a Thursday concert), on Saturday, as a ‘Hallé Collection’ evening.
Unusually, it was a ‘Beyond the Score’ night, with a single work in focus, illustrated and illuminated first by a film-plus-actors sequence, with musical extracts played by the Orchestra and Sir Mark, and then the full piece done ‘straight’, after the interval.
These presentations, devised by Gerard McBurney for the Chicago Symphony, have been used by the Hallé twice before – the ‘New World’ symphony and the Enigma Variations being the subject-matter. This was altogether weightier historical subject matter: Shostakovich’s Symphony no.4.
In fact there’s so much to be said about the fourth symphony – withdrawn from the public on the eve of its première in 1936, in the wake of the ‘muddle instead of music’ campaign against Shostakovich (most probably directly inspired by Stalin) and never heard until December 1961 – that contextualizing it fully, even with abundant clips from old Soviet newsreels and projections of contemporary posters, with excerpts from letters and speeches by key players in the drama – was bound to be an impossible task.
The printed concert programme, striving for background to the background, gave us much information but didn’t explain whose voices we were hearing or what the origins of the clips were. So it was an impressionistic glimpse of an alien and terrible time that came across: powerful if not informative, and veering towards a message that certain parts of the work were ‘about’ such things as factory output, poverty and deprivation, sport and recreation, home and family, and so on.
In fact the music spoke more clearly when it was ‘about’ nothing but itself. And that was in the second half, as Sir Mark piloted the orchestra through a performance that seized and maintained tension from the outset. The fourth is a massive, sprawling symphony that seems like Mahler’s constructions in some respects, employs an orchestra of the size he would have liked, and uses its potential for massive effects and chamber-music-like interludes in a somewhat similar way.
One challenge of performing it is to maintain a continuing musicality, particularly through the long first movement – as Günther Herbig did when he conducted it with the BBC Philharmonic for the Hallé/Phil Shostakovich cycle in 2010. As then, there were outstanding solos from the wind instruments along with bitingly satirical episodes, and Elder’s string section has a silky tenderness that fits the mood of the quieter music in both the first two movements beautifully.
And Elder found a trudgingly determined pace for the funereal (and Mahlerian, if you think of his first symphony) tune of the slow movement, fatalistic yet determined, with incredible intensity and wonderful lyricism alongside it. This was truly the emotional heart of the work.
By contrast, the finale bounced along with heady optimism and dashed into its Keystone Cops, clown-style sequence with zest. The big (mock?) peroration was powerful in the extreme – making the doom-laden epitaph to it all the more harrowing.
It was a great performance. The one question I’d have liked to have considered was this: when Shostakovich wrote the fifth symphony, as ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’, had he really undergone a change of heart musically?
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé