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Beethoven: Symphony No.9 in D Minor, Op.125.  Kodály Psalmus hungaricus. Hallé Orchestra. Hallé Choir  (James Burton choral director)  Mark Elder CBE (conductor) Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 14.10. 2006 (RJF)


Orla Boylan - soprano

Anna Burford - alto

Stefan Margita - tenor

Neal Davies - bass 

This concert was just like the treats of my youth fifty years ago, when I was taken to visit an aunt for Sunday tea. The anticipation then, was all about the sherry trifle that would follow the tinned salmon, only to find that she had opened a tin of peaches as well! Like many in the audience at this concert, my anticipation was all about Mark Elder's Beethoven 9th, performed to celebrate the sixth anniversary of his appointment as the Hallé’s Music Director but he unexpected peach of the evening was Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus.


The work sets 16th century poet Milhály Vég's version of Psalm 56, a passionate expression of indignation against betrayal, and a fervent prayer for succour and support. Kodály wrote the piece for a festival to mark the 50th anniversary of the union of the towns of Buda, Pesth and Óbuda into the city of Budapest. Set in four unbroken movements, it succeeds in fusing the elegiac rhythms of plainsong with more expressive and near violent declamatory passages, given to the tenor in particular as well as the choir. The singer here was Stefan Margita whose calling card has long been Laca in Janacek’s Jenufa, which he has sung with leading conductors at some of the very best addresses. A big man, his lyrical tenor was equally expressive in the sotto voce passages as well as the fiercely declamatory sections. This was a most impressive performance and he fully deserved the acclaim of both  audience and orchestra at the work's conclusion The Hallé choir sang with equal softness and did not break their sonority in the more violent passages. Learning such a work phonetically is no easy task either, and the glory of this amateur choir lies in its commitment and quality of performance in works such as this, as well as to more mainstream pieces.


Beethoven’s conception of his great final symphony did not start off with a text in the composer’s mind. As late as 1818, he was planning two symphonies to succeed his 7th and 8th but as his thinking progressed he envisaged voices as part of the finale and also had the notion of increasing the violins tenfold as the voices entered in the finale. Eventually, at the first performance in 1824, he had to be satisfied with a total complement of twenty-four.

In between his first ideas and the completion of the symphony, Beethoven spent three years composing the Missa Solemnis and the last three piano sonatas. How else he could have concluded the symphony's first three monumental movements without recourse to choral forces is difficult for us to conceive today, since Schiller’s words have become so familiar.  The symphony became a cultural icon within a generation, in the wake of the 1848 political revolutions and unrest throughout Europe,  and with the help of Wagner, the work became even more politicised. It has remained so ever since - at no time more so than the present with its echoes of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent changes still in our minds.


Putting such thoughts aside and listening to the music for its own sake, one cannot be other than be viscerally excited and stimulated by the moods of the various first three movements and final drama of the last. Mark Elder took a very dramatic, even theatrical, view of the score and his reading was both vigorous and dynamic. Tempi were on the fast side and once or twice, they stretched the Hallé to its considerable present day limits. I doubt if the orchestra that Mark Elder inherited six years ago could have raised their game as far as his current charges did. The six cellos and four double basses were beautiful in their phrasing and sonority, a match for the singing tones of the flutes. I felt that the fast pace took away something of the ethereal beauty of the third movement but added much to the excitement of the finale.

Although Mark Elder allowed the audience to cough and wriggle between the second and third movements, I sensed he was thwarted by the coughing in wanting the final movement to be launched swiftly. But this was a quite magnificent rendering of one of the greatest compositions of its time or since. The sopranos of the Hallé choir, some singing without scores, soared superbly, although the men were somewhat undernourished vocally, probably a simple reflection of numbers, I suspect. Neil Davies’ lean bass launched the solo contributions with excellent diction but some lack of vocal depth and gravitas. The soprano Orla Boylan’s clear incisive soprano soared and cut through the dense orchestral textures along with Anna Burford’s creamier but distinctive tone. As in the Kodály, Stefan Margita's tenor was a particular strength. The prolonged applause from a very well attended Bridgewater Hall was fully deserved. The performance is to be broadcast on October 22nd  and is well worth looking out for.



Robert J Farr



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)