City of London Festival – Hallé/Elder

Four Preludes and Serious Songs
Parsifal – Prelude to Act I; Good Friday Music
Vier letzte Lieder

Johan Reuter (bass-baritone)

Orla Boylan (soprano)

Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 June, 2008
Venue: St Paul's Cathedral, London

Sir Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenapalA cannily constructed programme (appositely given without an interval) consisting of these three composers’ last musical works (albeit Brahms still had 11 Chorale Preludes for organ to write, Opus 122) that was generally well-complemented (if sometimes hampered) by the generous acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral.

It was good to hear again Detlev Glanert’s orchestration of Brahms’s “Four Serious Songs” (the UK premiere was in 2006 at the BBC Proms). In extending the work with four orchestral preludes (“Vier Präludien und ernste Gesänge”) in a decidedly more Expressionist style than Brahms’s own, Glanert’s ‘treatment’ surely removes the original from Brahms’s catalogue and thus making Opus 121 an inappropriate adornment. Leaving aside such niceties, Glanert (born 1960), one of the most distinctive and interesting composers around, has been deeply respective and very imaginative with his re-dressing of Brahms’s farewell to the Lied.Johan ReuterAlthough, for the most part, this is dark and foreboding music (setting biblical texts) there is too a grave beauty and, come the close, a radiant hope. Glanert’s scoring occasionally reminds of Bruckner and even finds an Elgarian nobilmente. If on this occasion Glanert’s moments of ‘modernist’ complexity lost out to the acoustic, most of the music’s sentiment and Glanert’s colouring of them survived vividly; and – as before – Johan Reuter’s experienced singing was lyrically intense, heartfelt, and ringing in its declamation. Mark Elder and the Hallé’s sympathetic response left no doubt as to Glanert’s very persuasive achievement; the calm acceptance of the final bars – pastoral-sounding woodwinds over soft strings – created a magical impression.

There was an appropriately sacred glow to the “Parsifal” extracts, tempos at-one with the surroundings – sounds hung in the air and (eventually) reduced to silence, cellos and double basses adding subterranean tension. The ceremony of ‘Good Friday Music’ was presented without bombast before finding an inner hush that was deeply affecting.

Elder is as distinguished a Straussian as he is a Wagnerian; his conducting of “Four Last Songs” had an instinctive rightness, lovingly responded to by the Hallé, including a fine horn contribution (there was no personnel listing) and Lyn Fletcher’s rapt violin solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. In many ways Orla Boylan proved an ideal interpreter, with a wonderfully natural turn of phrase and a gentle rapture. If there was a misjudgement, it was that her soaring, while unforced in itself, was also too loud for this swelling acoustic and tended to dominate. Yet there was so much to admire and be moved by; and there is no doubt that the Hallé is in a golden period under Sir Mark Elder’s directorship.

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