Friday, 4 June 2021

Review of the Hallé's live Bridgewater Hall concert on 4th June 2021

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé 

The Hallé was back playing for a live audience in the Bridgewater Hall – and what a sense of achievement that simple fact gave.

Sir Mark Elder told the evening audience (the second of the day) how much the orchestra had missed them. We’d missed seeing the band in person, too, but it surely raised their spirits to see most available seats filled and a standing ovation at the end, instead of just microphones and film cameras. A Thursday night reception for the Hallé’s music is, after all, something in Manchester’s lifeblood and has been since 1861.

If these were ‘normal’ times, we’d be seeing the Hallé Proms, and this concert and the ones to follow in the ‘Summer Season’ look in some ways like Proms programmes – but there’s been more to their planning than just providing a set of accessible, optimistically-charged orchestral pieces. There’s a bit of a Stravinsky commemoration built in, for instance, with both Petrushka and The Firebird figuring.

The first outing was certainly accessible and optimistically charged, though. Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla ensured that: Sir Mark gets just the right tempo to bring the bounding first tune (with a thrill of a crescendo on its upward scale) and the lilting second one both to life. And the full Petrushka score (1947 version) did that in spades, too, the opening Shrovetide Fair music, taken at a relatively steady pace, revealing secrets and details that aren’t always appreciable when the music emerges in slightly less rhythmically accurate form from a theatre pit, and later solo roles in the orchestra including sweet and winsome flute playing by Amy Yule and impactful and exciting trumpets.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations have been a Hallé staple almost from the day they were written, and Sir Mark and the orchestra brought them to glorious life once again: the opening theme as much caressed as played, the characters of the ‘friends pictured within’ brought vividly to life, and Nimrod, the great slow movement, made the centrepiece it was surely always designed to be; the strings, guest-led by Magnus Johnston, producing wonderful tone.

Indeed, one of the most rewarding things about this concert was the sense of aural splendour that seems to come with hearing the orchestra in its newly distance seating plan on the much expanded platform, with the brass firing salvoes from above in what would usually be choir seats. It’s like listening in quadraphonics rather than stereo and almost a new experience in itself … perhaps one we’ll miss if and when we can return to what we once called normal.

A streamed recording of the concert will be available from 10 June: link


Friday, 30 April 2021

Review of the Hallé's filmed production of The Soldier's Tale

Martins Imhangbe in The Soldier's Tale: credit The Hallé

The final ‘episode’ of the Hallé’s digital Winter Season 2020-2021 is a triumphant vindication of the policy of turning music performance into world class film production that has animated it from the start.

After all, once you’re afloat in the great wide ocean of the internet, you’re up against the world: the potential audience is incalculable, but the competition for attention is enormous.

Re-thinking the idea of a ‘concert’ into an hour or so of audio-visual content for a smallish screen, and then selling it to people who want to choose when they engage is a task in itself. It’s not just a case (except for those with a dedicated following of a enthusiasts) of going into an empty venue, setting up a few cameras and microphones and doing what you’d do if there were an audience.

But it does give the brave a chance to show what they can do, to put their best goods in a shop window, and to make new friends and fans.

The Hallé production of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is the best example yet. It’s a sui generis creation – ‘a kind of hybrid film’, if you like director Annabel Arden’s own description, though she insists it’s a product of an ‘improvised and under-funded’ time and captures the ‘poor theatre’ nature of the work’s beginnings (a world blighted by war and, in Stravinsky’s case, revolution, and also suffering the effects of a pandemic … so it’s not appropriate just because of the 50th anniversary of its composer’s death).

Her co-director is Femi Elufowoju, and the soldier is played by Martins Imhangbe: they create an historical reference to a real-life soldier-musician called Lt James Reese Europe, a US army bandleader who died in 1919. It’s lightly symbolized: the piece is still the narrative-drama-dance piece by Stravinsky and C F Ramuz it always was, and the performers and filmic creatives (led by Gemma Dixon, the producer whose Maestro Arts has been behind all the Hallé digital productions of this season, and director Dominic Best) are the ones who make it what it is.

The best thing to say is, ‘Just watch and listen for yourself.’ It’s filmed in Manchester, mainly in and around the Rochdale Canal and Bridgewater Hall. The Devil lives in the hall’s cavernous undercroft – the world our Soldier longs for is glimpsed from the top of a multi-storey car park, and the village inn is ‘the Pev’ (Peveril of the Peak), an historic pub just round the corner.

The musicians are Hallé musicians Peter Liang, leader, Billy Cole, double bass, Sergio Castelló-López, clarinet, Emily Hultmark, bassoon, Gareth Small, trumpet, Katy Jones, trombone, and David Hext, percussion, conducted by Sir Mark Elder.

Richard Katz is Narrator, Mark Lockyer is the Devil (a particularly convincing and creepy impersonation!), and Faith Prendergast dances the Princess. If you don’t know the story, well, you need to watch: there is a moral to this tale.

I’ll just add that I found the whole thing fascinating, not only because of the skills of the performers but also in the mixing, sound editing and all the other things that go to make an imaginative piece of film. It’s just an hour long.

Link:  Available until 29 July.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Review of Northern Chamber Orchestra Soloists filmed at the Carole Nash Hall, Chetham's

NCO leader Nicholas Ward

The Northern Chamber Orchestra, like so many other musical groups, has bravely kept its main concert series going by a combination of in-person performances where possible, streaming them in addition, and streaming-only where not. By tradition there is an ‘NCO Soloists’ chamber music programme in the mix around this time, and this week it’s a filmed recording of Mozart and Schumann made in the Carole Nash recital hall at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester.

Two utterly wonderful masterworks are on offer for your £15: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, with NCO principal Elizabeth Jordan joining the string quartet of Nicholas Ward, Simon Gilks, Richard Muncey and Cara Berridge, and Schumann’s E flat Piano Quintet, where the same string players welcome Benjamin Powell as the player of the piano part originally written for Clara Schumann herself.

There’s an hour and six minutes of music, along with informal introductions by Nicholas Ward in the style very familiar to attenders at live concerts by the NCO. Lighting is slightly subdued, and the players sit in the wide V-shape now often adopted for chamber music combinations such as this (rather than the tight U we would have had in socially undistanced days). The cameras are set at various angles and deftly sequenced and merged to create a made-for-TV feel to the video (though the sound in the empty room came over slightly ‘boxy’ to me as a listener).

But it’s the music that counts, and that is beautifully played. Mozart’s quintet is balm for the soul at any time, and even more so just now. In the opening movement each player lets the contours of the melodies shape their phrasing, completely naturally, and the dreamy larghetto brings a lovely tapestry of muted violin sound around the clarinet’s solo line.

For a moment, intonation seems to wander in the minuet, but its trios bounce along, the second, rustic-sounding, one in particular, where Cara Berridge surmounts her exposed arpeggios with grace (and a suitable relaxation in the tempo). The finale manages to be both playful and relaxed at the outset, and by the end its brief adagio episode makes a telling foil to the merriment that precedes and follows it.

The Schumann work finally brings Ben Powell to perform with the NCO after his planned concerto appearance in 2020 had to be aborted at two days’ notice because of Covid. His role may be more modest in a quintet texture, but it has its moments and is nonetheless distinguished. The first movement is full of glorious lyrical exposition of its singing themes, and the ‘march’ tempo of the C minor movement that follows is not too funereal, thanks to a well sustained underlying momentum. The scherzo third movement, with its hammering marcato quavers, warms things up considerably, its first trio sweet and innocent, the second boiling up to great effect; and then things dovetail neatly into the finale, which is joyful, incisive, and builds (as it’s designed to do) to a huge, cumulative climax of musical and emotional power.

Link: (£15 for unlimited streaming, available until 2nd May).

Friday, 2 April 2021

Review of the Hallé filmed concert at the Bridgewater Hall, released 1st April 2021

Delyana Lazarova conducts the Hallé in Manchester (credit The Hallé)

Delyana Lazarova was the winner of the first Siemens Hallé International Conductors Competition in February last year, and became the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor last September.

Breathtakingly talented, she also exudes personality, even on film, and though she might have hoped for more live concert-hall exposure as the result of her competition win and new two-year appointment, she certainly makes up for that in Episode 7 of the Hallé’s ongoing series of filmed performances for this lockdown season.

It is in fact her official Hallé concert debut, made in the same cinematic style in and around the Bridgewater Hall as the most ambitious of Sir Mark Elder’s concert films here, with Maestro Arts and Stephen Portnoi’s sound team giving us the same quality product to watch at home. (The subdued lighting of the last film in the hall has been turned up enough to let us see the players properly without losing that sense of atmosphere that dimness engenders).

Delyana Lazarova has the technique of musical direction at her fingertips: a clear beat and communicative gestures, with an expressive face (and a smiley one), and even her eyebrows convey meaning. More than that, she injects energy and tension into music that needs it, and calm and relaxation into the other sort.

Sir Mark talks about her qualities in the conversation-piece clip that begins the film, referring to her control and poise (there’s a brief excerpt from her competition-winning performance with the orchestra at Hallé St Peter’s just over a year ago) – and also the sense of passion that comes over in her music-making. I’ll go with that: the first piece in this programme is her own choice, the Overture by Polish 20-century composer Grażyna Bacewicz, opening with scurrying strings (led by Paul Barritt) in celebratory style and introducing an eloquent and still passage for wind players before its return to liveliness. It was wartime secret-drawer music when it was written (1943, under occupation), but what a spirit of hope and courage it catches – one that Delyana responds to with zeal.

She talks as enthusiastically and urgently as she conducts, bridging the gap between the Bacewicz overture and the Suite from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring music.

(It’s the 13-instrument version, the soundworld of the original ballet, incidentally the same one that Manchester Camerata members filmed and recorded in the Stoller Hall in January for Radio 3 and released as a one-day-only stream on 24th February).

The Hallé principals and soloists (and notably Gemma Beeson on piano) play with tenderness and affection for Delyana Lazarova, producing a delightful and sweetly evocative sound – the Bridgewater Hall acoustic helps what is effectively a chamber music score to take a mellow tinge, like a stage performance seen through a gauze. The conductor has just told us she’s going to ‘let you see those characters and hear the story’ of the ballet, and she does just that, with the ending of the bride-and-groom interlude lovingly caressed.

Our concert-film continues with oboe Virginia Shaw, trumpet Tom Osborne, percussion Erika Őhman and Delyana herself briefly introducing Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1 – a piece for these challenging times, as Virginia puts it. It’s also one of those major works the Hallé has the credit for premiering in the UK (under Harty back in 1932).

If its overnight success in the Russia of 1926 has one simple explanation, it could be that it was pretty advanced music that was not just clever but also moving. Delyana Lazarova presents it with a twinkle in the eye but with a darker presence also, the central movements giving opportunities for solo virtuosity in the orchestra to shine, and by the end her interpretation provides a degree of gravity in the orchestra’s playing that may not have been noticeable before but is deeply impressive.

Link: Available until 1 July.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Review of the Hallé filmed concert at the Bridgewater Hall, released 11th February 2021


The Hallé with conductor Stephen Bell  credit The Hallé

‘Episode 4’ of the Hallé’s ongoing series of filmed performances is different from the ones the came before. It’s the only one so far to be programmed in the style of the Saturday Pops concerts that conductor Stephen Bell has made deservedly popular in recent years, and he is the maestro on the Bridgewater Hall podium for this, with the orchestra laid out in socially distanced seating on the massively enlarged stage.

‘Movie Classics’ is the title, and all the short pieces have been used on film soundtracks at some point (or several points), but it could just as well have been a typical classical pops programme – except that the linking comments by Petroc Trelawny are nearly all about the films, and so are the write-ups in the online programme ‘booklet’ … and even the one piece of filmed conversation (it comes just half-way through, to introduce Elgar’s Nimrod), between Stephen Bell and the Hallé’s permanent guest leader, Paul Barritt, starts off that way. They do go on to talk about the music’s own qualities, thank goodness. 

There’s plenty to listen to here, nearly an hour and half in total, and it’s worth hearing even if you didn’t know the associations with both well-known and half-forgotten films.

The visual presentation, by the same team from Maestro Broadcasting that has brought us Episodes 1 to 3, is clearly on a different budgetary level from that provided for Sir Mark Elder’s concert: the lighting is relatively subdued, there are fewer camera positions and less ambitious editing, and some of the shots seemed to be of the soft-focus sort. 

But there are two soloists (the orchestra politely applauds them and the conductor, to avoid the sense of anticlimax that might otherwise occur): the Hallé’s own principal clarinet, Sergio Castelló-López, and mezzo-soprano Nardus Williams, a young British singer who is on the brink of an international operatic career. She is a confident, superbly controlled classical singer with a warm tone and rich vibrato, already, judging by her career notes, well able to take roles of mature and powerful women on the stage.

The music varies from Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’ from Dido and Aeneas via Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino overture, Dvorak’s Song to the Moon from Rusalka and Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours to the overture to Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (described in the ‘booklet’ as just the Can-Can, but including more tunes than that). 

My favourites were the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, showing the Hallé at its resonant best in its full-orchestra scoring, the slow movement from Mozart’s Clarinet concerto – I could listen to Sergio Castelló-López’s playing all day, in this or any other music, so beautiful is the sound he makes with a clarinet – the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss II (whisking us away to Vienna and the sound of another orchestra, which plays almost as well in the concert hall but got beaten by the Hallé when it came to football while they were both in Salzburg), Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ from the Enigma Variations, which they have played for Sir Mark Elder often enough and somehow seems to retain his passionate frisson whoever is up-front, and Verdi’s ‘Sempre Libera’ from La Traviata, where Nardus Williams really comes into her own as a dramatic singer of fire and power.



Soloists Nardus Williams and Sergio Castelló-López credit The Hallé