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S & H Prom Review

PROM 12: Berlioz, Elgar, Colin Matthews, Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder, Alice Coote, RAH, 26th July 2003 (ME)



This was a well-balanced programme calculated to please: – a little dose of not-too-long modern stuff, a romantic vocal work featuring the British mezzo-of-the moment, and a safe Elgar Symphony performed by the orchestra which premiered it – well, not the same players, but you get the idea.

In the event, it turned out to be a remarkable concert for two reasons, the first being the Hallé orchestra’s playing of the Elgar under its chief conductor, and the second being the new depths of idiocy plumbed by the audience – and not just the famously daft Prommers. Yes, thank you, I’m very well aware that when most of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s symphonies were first performed, it was the common practice to indicate approval by applause after movements, and that when Elgar’s 1st Symphony itself was premiered by the Hallé under Hans Richter in 1908, there was a particularly enthusiastic ovation after the third movement, but times have changed, and nowadays any audience with the slightest claim to being aware and appreciative does its best to keep any noise down between movements rather than creating a cacophony. I have never heard such a disgraceful show as this audience put up on Saturday night: the gentleman next to me was outraged by it, fulminating ‘Where do these people come from?’ Well, I don’t know, but what I do know is that something has to be done about this idiotic habit: between each of the six parts of ‘Nuits d’Ete,’ and between each movement of the symphony, there was quite loud applause which came from all sections of the house, and it was quite obviously not applause that indicated ‘I’m just so carried away I have to clap’ but ‘Huh? Is it over? Suppose we ought to clap now’. Is it too much to ask for a little reminder to be given, both in the programme and perhaps when the reminder about mobile phones is given, that it is the usual practice not to applaud until the end of a work? The programme currently reminds us that ‘Mobile phones wreck concerts, and so do digital alarms, eating, drinking, talking and taking photographs.’ Yes, and so does ill-timed applause

Back to the music. This was the London premiere of Colin Matthews’ ‘Vivo,’ a work which certainly lived up to its name although this four-and-a-half minute piece really needed more time to expand, particularly in the slower second part. I think of Matthews as a composer for voice (erroneously, I know, in terms of the proportions of vocal and instrumental music in his total oeuvre) and the singing lines here recalled his major 1988 work ‘The Great Journey,’ set for baritone and small orchestra. Matthews is Associate Composer with the Hallé, a relationship which obviously has significant benefits for both parties.

Alice Coote was probably the main draw of this concert as far as most London concert-goers were concerned: those of us who heard her as Poppea at the ENO in 2000 did not need to be informed that she is a rising star, as the many writers who have rushed to ‘spot’ her over the last year have informed us. Some people know one when we hear one, and you only have to experience a phrase sung in her ‘cello-like tone to be aware that this is more than just a fine voice. That being said, this evening did not represent her at her best: the vestiges of a cold were clearly evident during some of the lower-lying music, and she found it difficult to achieve the ethereal, floating tone which she so clearly desired in such phrases as ‘Ci-gît une rose, / Que tous les rois vont jalouser.’ Janet Baker will always be my benchmark for this work, and of course it’s asking a lot of any singer to approach her, but there were times during this performance, especially during the first part and in ‘Absence’ when I did hear something of the kind of hushed intensity which she brought to this music. Alice’s French is not yet quite idiomatic, but then the same could be said of many British singers who are far more experienced than she is, and her beautifully shaped phrases, elegant sense of rhythm and poetic approach to the language promised much. Mark Elder and the orchestra supported her with direction of real warmth and nobility.

Elgar’s 1st Symphony is a work which the Hallé could be said to have in its blood: it gave the first performance under Richter in the Free Trade Hall, its musical home until 1996. Elgar himself regarded Richard Strauss as the most significant composer of his time, but Richter, not unexpectedly as the standard-bearer of Brahms and Wagner, called this work ‘…the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest composer, and not only in this country.’ Artur Nikisch called it ‘The Fifth of Brahms’ and that sounds right to me, partly accounting for the fact that I have never had much affection for it. However, on this occasion Elder and the Hallé gave it so much feeling and subtlety that I almost changed my mind: that long, slow opening which so often sounds utterly lugubrious without much point in being so was here much closer to the ‘heavenly slowness’ of Schubert, as was the superbly played Adagio. That D major theme is so full of richness and melancholy, and the orchestra seemed to relish every bar: I haven’t heard such lustre and eloquence in a string or woodwind section since the Berlin Philharmonic last year. The final Allegro perhaps lacked a little in terms of sparkle, but this hardly detracted from a performance remarkable for its control, instrumental balance and sheer beauty of tone.


Melanie Eskenazi



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