Vivo [London premiere]
Les nuits dété
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 26 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Manchester resurgent and risen phoenix-like from the ashes? That’s what the spinmeisters of music, the publicity machines, would have us believe of the Hallé under Mark Elder. As usual, the reality is a little more complicated. To start with, the Hallé was never that bad, having simply lost out to the BBC Philharmonic in the visibility stakes; in the second Mark Elder is working with some success to introduce new tonal sophistication.
Vivo, the five-minute opener by the Hallé’s Associate Composer, 30 seconds longer than Colin Matthews thinks (!), demonstrated the orchestra’s precise woodwind chording and subtlety of intonation. Ultimately Vivo is too short to make much of an impression other than as an agreeably lucid and well orchestrated calling card.
Les nuits d’été was an altogether different matter, receiving a remarkable and unusual performance from the wonderful Alice Coote and demonstrating just how beautifully and sensitively the Hallé is capable of playing. One-third of the audience applauded after the first five of the six songs – in this of all music this was particularly disruptive and annoying: the cycle forms an inverted arch, a descent into an interior world of loss, death and introspection, which needs to be listened to whole and uninterrupted. Elder could (and should) have turned to the audience and advised something like: “Applause is welcome – but could we have it only at the end please”.
Alice Coote’s voice is a very distinctive instrument; from the softest, most velvet of pianissimos – such as when blended at the very bottom of its register with the clarinet at the close of “Le spectre de la rose” – to the ringing top notes of “Sur les lagunes”. She projected effortlessly, spinning a magic web which carried the listener mesmerised through the silences which abound in this music. Used with great intelligence, Coote’s voice has a genuine contralto quality that enables her to encompass the very lowest notes so crucial in these songs. The collaboration with Elder and an orchestra tangibly concentrated and matching the singer note-for-note was everything one could have hoped for. A minor cavil might be that the four inner songs would have benefited from slightly greater variety of mood and tempo. Actually, this was riches indeed. Coote is scheduled to sing Berlioz’s Dido in San Francisco in 2005. Lucky San Francisco!
Elgar’s First Symphony was an oddly uneven and unsatisfactory affair, again with mood-breaking applause! Elder gave us what was effectively a Schumannesque interpretation, mining a vein of fantasy and whimsy which certainly lies just below the surface of much of the music. However whilst there may be a place for such a view by way of antidote to more heavyweight and rambunctious performances, his approach was only intermittently successful. The linked middle movements responded best, the Scherzo light on its feet with the Trio played as Elgar is reported to have asked for – “like something you hear down on the river on a summer’s night” – while the slow movement reached unforced, understated eloquence, especially its closing paragraph, the clarinet maintaining the magic to the very close.
The problem lay in the outer movements. Sensitivity to the passing mood undoubtedly has its place in Elgar. Though, above all, this is a symphony, arguably the greatest ever by an English composer. The most successful Elgar symphony performances generate forward momentum, which was conspicuously lacking here. The outer movements can and do sustain a variety of tempo; however once either is ’cast adrift’ from the respective slow Introductions, an absolute imperative is that “A River (should) run through it” and generate an unstoppable current until each reaches, unimpeded, its culmination. Despite setting sensible-enough base tempos, Elder fussed and micro-managed every passing shadow, persistently dragging the tempo back with each dying fall. Tension frequently sagged and when we reached the symphony’s apotheosis, instead of the motto returning for the work’s culmination in a blaze of glory, there was only relief that the end was nigh.
Normally one would not wish to hear this symphony followed by anything else, even at a Prom. However, as an encore came Eric Coates’s Calling All Workers, the signature tune for “Music While You Work” – for those of us old enough to remember! It was played with the sort of unbuttoned panache that would have advantaged the symphony. If the Elgar performance is representative of the new touchy-feely post-Beckham Manchester, then there are certain aspects where I prefer the “rough at the edges” Trafford Park where I started my working life.