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Prom 16, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Bruch and R Strauss: Janine Jansen (violin), Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder, Royal Albert Hall, London, 29.7.2008 (BBr)

George Butterworth: Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad (1912)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.8 in D minor (1953/1956)

Max Bruch: Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, op.26 (1864/1866 rev 1868)

Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28 (1894)

When I was a kid and starting to learn about classical music, the Hall
é was the first, and at that time the only,  professional orchestra I heard, in their twelve concerts given every season in St George’s Hall in Bradford. I was lucky enough to hear Barbirolli’s last five seasons and also to meet the great man several times – he was very kind to an enquiring schoolboy. Having not heard the band live for some time, this concert was a bit like meeting a good old friend whom I hadn’t seen for a while. And what a satisfactory meeting it was! Elder is a fine musician who has moulded the Hallé into a fine band – indeed its sound is almost as sumptuous and full toned as it was under JB. I would go so far as to say that the Hallé has now found its best director since JB’s death.

The interpretation of the Butterworth Rhapsody – based on the first song, Loveliest of Trees from his
Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, written the previous year - surely one of the most beautiful and perfect songs ever written by an Englishman  – was magical. The songs are models of economy, and this paring down of means is also evident in the orchestral work. Although Butterworth uses a large orchestra,  it is seldom heard in tutti, but when it is the music is achingly beautiful. Elder never allowed the emotion to get out of hand and was restrained in his handling of this little gem. There was some exquisite string playing in the outer sections and the cor anglais was quite stunning in its brief solo. Many of Housman’s poems tell of the waste of young life in war – how prophetic, then, that Butterworth was killed, aged only 31, at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 – but there is also much wonder, almost childlike at times, at the brevity of life, friendship, and the perfection of the English countryside.

In order for us to fully realize all this, someone had the bright idea of employing two actors to recite three of the poems – two before and one after the music. As a lesson in how to ruin great music making this crass act of miscalculation takes first place. It certainly wasn’t a good idea to employ two actors who had no idea how to recite this poetry; each delivered every line as a separate statement with a complete lack of regard as to how the poems scanned. Thus, for instance, each line of the first verse of Loveliest of Trees, was given as a separate statement when, quite obviously, it is conceived  and written  as two separate thoughts. Even more ludicrous was the “performance” of the astonishing poem Is my team ploughing? where a ghost talks with his best friend. It is quite obvious that two very different voices are at work here but what we were given was two men chanting to each other in exactly the same tone and with exactly the same emphasis. Even the theatrical setting of having the “ghost” standing at the back of the arena and the friend on the stage was totally lost due to both actors wearing microphones so that their voices came from the same speakers above the conductor’s head! I do hope that the BBC will not resort to amateur dramatics ever again in this way. What would have served us all better would have been a performance of Butterworth’s entire song cycle.

Vaughan Williams’s 8th Symphony is the fun work in his cycle of 9. Scored for a smallish orchestra, the first movement is an odd set of variations which Elder characterised well. The scherzo, for the wind instruments only, complete with wonderful oompah bass and strange turns of melody, was given straight, making it even funnier than it usually is  and the slow movement for strings, the glorious cavatina, proves that VW had lost none of his ability to move his audience. The finale, complete with “all the ‘phones and ‘spiels known to the composer” (to use VW’s own words) was sheer joy :  this is a deeper, and more varied, work than might be thought at first hearing. Elder directed a super performance of a symphony which is all too often written off as one of VW’s less successful works. Treated with respect, the music emerged triumphant as a bright and breezy symphonic divertissement – entertaining for both orchestra and listeners.

After the interval,  Janine Jansen gave us that Violin Concerto. Bruch No.1 is well enough known these days to attract a yawn at the prospect of hearing it, but tonight the old workhorse emerged as a fine young stallion, such was the advocacy of soloist and orchestra. Jansen was more at home here than in the Beethoven Concerto I heard her give in the Barbican in May, and she employed a full, rich, luscious tone, giving the marvelous tunes full reign and relishing in the romanticism of the work.

To end, we heard cStrauss
’s superbly comic portrayal of the practical joker Till Eulenspiegel.  Elder and his players let their hair down full length and had a riot of a time. Strauss’s orchestral pyrotechnics were fully realised and there was a marvellous feeling of tongue in cheek when Till is sentenced to death and hanged; with some excellently portentous lower brass at work here.

Apart from my misgivings concerning the actors, this was a magnificent Prom with  the
Hallé on top form - reminding us that it's  not only London that has fine orchestras -  and with leadership of the highest order from Mark Elder.

Bob Briggs

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