Scènes historiques – Suite No.2, Op.66
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Piano Concerto No.3
András Schiff (piano)
Sir Mark Elder
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 21 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The lighter side of Sibelius’s musical art opened this BBC Prom. Mark Elder and his Hallé musicians breathed revealing life into the second set of Scènes historiques, depicting a hunt, suggestions of love and a carnival by a castle. If this is not Sibelius at his supreme best, the three tableaux offer pleasing and enjoyable invention and scoring, whether through impetuous rhythms, the intimation of grand vistas, soulful expression, numerous picturesque details and even some frippery. Inconsequential when compared to his greatest utterances, this is music that is also singularly Sibelian (albeit with a debt to Tchaikovsky). If his musical off-cuts lack nothing for intrigue, Sibelius’s elevated Seventh Symphony is carved from granite, a compacted work with all the necessary generic ingredients organically and indivisibility organised. Elder’s view of this craggy and affirming work was Mediterranean rather than Nordic, emerging not so much from the depths as proceeding with an in-built assurance of its destination while accepting from the off that this is Sibelius’s valediction to the most hallowed of forms (even if the composer had other ideas at the time). The wonderful writing for strings was distilled with a Palestrina-like radiance and clarity, and if Elder maybe kept transitions slightly too much on the reins and the symphony’s growing-pains and monumental surges were a little diluted, then the magnificence of the trombone’s twice-recurring theme was thrilling, sonorously played by Gary MacPhee. Perhaps overly cosseted by the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic, this poised account reached calm waters without surmounting too many hurdles, the C major resting place sighted early, the progression dignified rather than arrived at through battles overcome.
Recollection through tranquillity also hallmarked Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, which brought out the feminine side of András Schiff’s playing, the piece written by an ailing composer as a bequest for his pianist-wife, Ditta Pásztory, if first introduced by György Sándor. Schiff, Elder and the Hallé formed a very productive partnership in a performance that, in the first movement only, may have found the pianist a little foursquare and with rubato a little too calculated, yet there was also a grace and an innate identification with the solo part that was endearing. With sensitive and frolicsome detailing from the Hallé members, the first movement gradually beguiled and moved – its nostalgic reflection unfortunately usurped by some happy-clappers in the audience – while the slow movement got to the music’s heart and intensely rose to distressed eloquence via a ‘night-music’ episode of fire-fly iridescence. Schiff – poet, preacher and Bartók-confidant – produced some breathtaking runs and asides in that Adagio religioso that combusted with a Bachian purity. In the finale he found a lilt and an edge that seemed ideal, Elder and the Hallé unfailingly responsive to their soloist and his compassion for the music – a performance that ‘as time goes by’ gets better and better in one’s consciousness. Staying on Hungarian soil, which the USA-transplanted Bartók seemed to be pining for in his final piano concerto as related in this rendition – Schiff crossed the border into Austria for Schubert’s Ungarische Melodie (D817) in an encore as instinctive as it was captivating.
Finally Janáček’s Sinfonietta, an uplifting demonstration of what Elder and the Hallé are capable off. The baker’s-dozen of extra brass-players stood behind the orchestra to create out-of-doors festivity, John Abendstern bringing swagger to the timpani part. Elder (baton-less throughout the concert) and his musicians caught well the work’s rough-hewn, expressive and quirky aspects, and there was much attention paid to dynamics and good balance. From growls to shrieks, through rambunctiousness and subtlety via rawness and mellifluousness, this was a discriminating and show-stopping performance (not caught up with recent textural tweaks, possibly at the behest of the late Charles Mackerras, but leaving in no doubt that antiphonal violins are essential in this music) that was cultivated to the composer’s inimitableness and finally to ring out resplendently.