Scenes from Childhood [world premiere]
Uri Caine (piano)
Hallé Youth Choir & Ad Solem
Sir Mark Elder
Reviewed by: Helen Pearce
Reviewed: 4 March, 2010
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
The Hallé, on typically fine form, brought Manchester’s impressive Mahler cycle into the territory of his ‘middle-period’ symphonies. In the Fifth, Mahler turns away from the metaphysical emphasis characteristic of its predecessors. Passionately in love and having survived a near-fatal brain haemorrhage, he addresses earthly concerns in a work which his new wife, Alma, described as “the relationship of adult man to everything that lives”. First, though, we looked back to childhood in the world premiere from Uri Caine.
A sense of youthful innocence certainly came across in the dancing rhythms and colourful orchestration of Scenes from Childhood. The composer, in his role as solo pianist, added to the playful mood of the opening song with semi-improvised embellishments. However, with so much activity in the piano and the orchestra, the members of the Halle Youth Choir and Ad Solem (the University of Manchester’s chamber choir) struggled to make their presence felt; certainly any attempt to follow the poems was fruitless without the aid of the programme. Without doubt, this work provided vibrant and exhilarating moments, but it suffered from Caine’s neglect of the sung text; in his keenness to illustrate the poetry through the orchestra, effective word-setting too often seemed a secondary concern. This was rectified to a certain extent in the third song, where some charming passages allowed the choir to linger on and play with individual words. The choice of texts, a poem by a young prisoner of Terezín Concentration Camp sandwiched between works from William Blake and Dylan Thomas, also jarred slightly. Surely the theme of youthful innocence was too loose, and Caine’s musical style too homogeneous, to capture the contrasting moods of these poems. It was not until the words “And the Sabbath rang slowly” in the final poem that a significant deviation from the music’s energetic rhythms and driving tempo occurred (yes, the music slowed down).
The opening trumpet fanfare of Mahler’s Fifth, heralding the beginning of this turbulent darkness-to-light journey, set the precedent for superb solo-playing in the wind and brass. Throughout the first and second movements, the Hallé brought us majesty and menace in equal measure, perfectly encapsulating the collision of opposing soundworlds. The central scherzo charmed with its lightness and clarity, providing an attractive foil to the outbursts of unrest. The interweaving wind solos which crown the central pizzicato string passage were of particular delight, while Laurence Rogers relished the obbligato horn part.
Mark Elder leaned heavily on the ‘etto’ side of the famous Adagietto, maybe a love-letter to Alma. Providing an oasis of gentle meditation but never allowing the music to wallow, he deftly guided the strings in the ebb and flow of the main theme. The finale slipped convincingly between vigorous counterpoint and its dreamier passages. Elder was careful to keep a lid on the building tension and energy, however, only allowing the orchestra to let rip fully in the ecstatic final climax.