La mer – three symphonic sketches
Colin Matthews
Horn Concerto
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39

Richard Watkins (horn)

Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In his tenure thus far, Mark Elder (Music Director since 2000) has been patiently building the Hallé Orchestra (or Hallé as seems to be its preferred, singular billing) into a versatile and committed ensemble.

The first half of this attractively programmed Prom displayed the Hallé’s sensitivity to colour, dynamics and blend. Mark Elder (conducting from memory) distilled a refined and scrupulously balanced account of La mer, an astonishing masterwork, in which he underlined the symphonic logic of the score and maintained it through minimal pauses between the three movements. Detailing was immaculate, whether the clarity of a piccolo trill, or in nuances shared between winds and strings (the violins were antiphonal, so too two groups of four double basses), and in the varied and subtle ways of playing metal percussion. Elder poised the direction of the music and its picturesque qualities ideally; thus climax and drama emerged unfiltered amidst much that was delicate, glinting and shapely, and aurally engrossing in the painstaking but not pedantic attention to sonority. Elder, rightly (for one’s inner ear plays them anyway), restored the brass fanfares in the finale that Debussy removed but which Ernest Ansermet restored (marking them ad lib).

Completed in 1899, Sibelius’s First Symphony (his third such work of symphonic aspiration), is so utterly different to the contemporaneous La mer (Debussy finished its orchestration in 1905 after three years’ work). Yet, Sibelius’s sense of narrative seems more tangible than Debussy’s is, even though it is qualified by a rather episodic approach to construction (the ‘quasi una fantasia’ description of the finale holds good for the work as a whole). In essence, Debussy’s La mer is a fantastically well-organised ‘symphony’ and Sibelius No.1 is more an extended symphonic poem, taut in form but loose in content.

Sibelius’s is a striking piece, to be sure, and although the Hallé once again impressed (save that trumpets and trombones tended to be rather too dominant in terms of volume), Elder’s equally-scrupulous approach rather restricted the rough-hewn and storm-tossed episodes; all just a little too worked out. The opening clarinet solo from Lynsey Marsh promised much (Elder, by chance, delayed the timpani-led opening enough to avoid a splurge of a mobile-phone ringing and some other noises-off) – at first she spoke out with Nordic wailing and then went moodily introspective. Elder’s control thereafter, while eliciting much fine playing and polished detail, rather subdued the atmospheric propulsion of the piece.

Maybe the secret with Sibelius 1 is to ‘help’ the composer and make the episodes as integrated as possible; Elder rather exposed the flaws, and while the scherzo had drive, and the finale passion, there was enough disengagement to render the work as intermittent in its interest. At the close, though, Elder dug deep into the ‘epic’ nature of Sibelius’s score – the string-playing was superbly intense here – and brought a dramatic flair missing elsewhere. One could reasonably expect an encore from Elder and the Hallé (remember Eric Coates’s Calling all Workers at the 2003 Proms?) – unfortunately, no ‘extra’ was forthcoming on this occasion.

In between the ‘symphonies’, Colin Matthews’s Horn Concerto made a big impression. Written for Richard Watkins and completed in 2001 to a commission by the Philharmonia Orchestra, the first performance that year was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in the Royal Festival Hall. Scored for an orchestra of reduced strings (the violins required to sit as one group), and with winds including an alto flute and, replacing trumpets, a pair of flugelhorns, Colin Matthews (currently the Hallé’s Associate Composer), further aided by percussion, harp and piano, has conjured an iridescent score, nearly 25 minutes in length, its attractive if shadowy mellowness stabbed by fireflies of colour.

The orchestral horns begin the work without ceremony – offstage and dramatically cutting into the audience’s hubbub. Mark Elder (having conducted the summoning horns) emerged stage-right, the orchestra non-conducted (for the moment) in providing ‘atmosphere’ while he took his place on the podium. The solo horn is heard equally from afar, from the opposing side; Watkins joining Elder in the walk to the platform, stopping short for the first of three positions from which to play the solo part.

Those opening orchestral horns reminded of Michael Tippett’s stalking rhythms (and their interjections would continue, always from the Hall’s periphery, and from different positions), whereas the sepulchral hues of the orchestra conjured memories of Benjamin Britten’s operatic treatment of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. This is very much Colin Matthews’s axis, but he is also his own man. The Horn Concerto (a premiere for this listener, and a Hallé own-label recording of it is due soon) is an engrossing affair of nocturnal theatre, an animated scherzo-like movement (with slithery strings) at its mid-point, in which journeying and correspondences are the concerto’s locus. Such is the perspective of the piece – the Albert Hall platform here a theatre-within-a-theatre (the building’s outer circle coming into its own) – that each listener would have had (aurally and visually) a different take; the soloist (Richard Watkins was magnificent, by the way!) either arriving or leaving depending on the dynamic perceivable to any one part of the auditorium. Watkins eventually found himself where the orchestral horns had begun proceedings; for this listener (in something of a perfect position, I think), I heard the perfect ‘trailing off’.

Elder also exited, the opposite way to his entrance, the orchestra now ending the piece ‘solo’. A shame a few more seconds of silence couldn’t have occurred before applause took us out of a dream (nightmare?). Whether about characters being transposed or reconciled (or hunted?), Colin Matthews has here created a very strong piece that worked a treat in the Albert Hall, and which, once again, demonstrated the Hallé’s conviction.

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