Macbeth … Les Illuminations … Inextinguishable Symphony

Macbeth – tone poem after Shakespeare, Op.23
Les illuminations, Op.18
Symphony No.4 (Inextinguishable)

Joan Rodgers (soprano)

Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenapalIt’s quite rare that an encore is also a premiere, but that’s what happened at the end of this Hallé Prom. That an extra was planned was self-evident from the harp that had been untouched throughout the evening and through a pair of cymbals remaining from the otherwise-cleared percussion section that wasn’t needed for the Nielsen. Mark Elder, addressing the audience with customary ease and invitation, announced a “first performance” – Colin Matthews’s orchestration of Debussy’s very final piano piece, written in payment to his coal merchant. Thus Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon is exquisitely coloured and sounded by Matthews (he has also orchestrated Debussy’s 24 Préludes for piano, 12 so far recorded on the Hallé’s CD label) and was played with sensitivity by the Hallé.

It came after an account of Nielsen’s ‘Inextinguishable’ that took a while to gather strength. The first movement was rather too temperate, its turmoil pushed through, and whilst contrasts had undoubted humanity, the upheaval that should hook the listener was rather subdued. This would have made the woodwinds’ pastoral piping of the second movement even more idyllic although the playing was wonderfully attentive and shapely (as solo strings were to be later). In the third movement the strings didn’t shirk from intensity (if not finding the depth of sound that had so distinguished the Strauss opener) and paving the way for Shostakovich-like introspection. If Nielsen isn’t tempted by additional percussion in this symphony, he does add a second set of timpani, and both players gave a virtuoso account as the temperature rose in the finale and brought a more demonstrative response from the orchestra, the musicians remaining finely poised to the notes. Nielsen wrote that “Music is life and, as such, inextinguishable”. Concentration was to the fore for the final bars but something more rough-hewn and tempestuous had been needed earlier.

That the Hallé currently plays with dynamic sensitivity and corporate consolidation was evident throughout a superb performance of Richard Strauss’s take on Macbeth, the amplitude of the Hallé in a large space being particularly gratifying. The strings alone, even reduced by a couple of desks, carried to the Hall’s extremities and were full of incident in “Les illuminations”, a replacement for “Our Hunting Fathers”. It was really disappointing to lose a rare outing for Britten’s collaboration with W. H. Auden (Lisa Milne being “unwell”), so we had Britten’s setting of Arthur Rimbaud. Joan Rodgers sung with expression and suggestion, if not always the ‘finish’ or potency this music demands, but the show went on with style.

Before this Mark Elder had us re-evaluating Strauss’s early work, relishing its stirring and melodramatic qualities and appreciating Strauss’s confidence with a large orchestra as he built on the richness of 19th-century German music and sharing expositions not dissimilar to the (then) also-maturing Elgar. Elder and the Hallé (Macbeth is also recorded on the orchestra’s own label) gave a superbly focussed and dramatic account, full of suspense when required. Strauss’s use of the gong (when struck by different types of beaters) shows no lack of imagination, the off-stage side drum made full use of the Royal Albert Hall’s chambers, and puts a lot of fine invention into a 20-minute span, which the Hallé showcased with revealing intent. May the ‘gentleman’ who let go a cough of Richter-scale proportions during a long silence be cursed by the Three Witches!

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