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Britten, Delius, Berlioz: Roderick Williams (baritone), Hallé Choir, Lawrence Power (viola), Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 17.3.2011 (MC)

Four Sea Interludes from opera Peter Grimes

Delius: Sea Drift for baritone, chorus and orchestra

Berlioz: Harold in Italy for viola and orchestra.

Sir Mark Elder can't resist the music of Delius. He must have spent considerable time pouring over Delius scores, conducting the music in concert and recording it in the studio as confirmed by the Hallé CDs English Landscapes and English Rhapsody. Everything dispatched with scrupulous preparation, undying affection and matchless spirit. Throughout his long career Sir Thomas Beecham championed the music of Delius.The Hallé Orchestra have played their part too with renowned Delius recordings under conductors Sir John Barbirolli and Vernon Handley. The text of Walt Whitman caught the imagination of a number of composers and Delius's Sea Drift for baritone, chorus and orchestra is a setting of Whitman's verse. Delius uses text taken mainly from the Whitman poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking which relates a tragic tale of the love and pain of separation, through a boy's eyes, of two nesting seagulls until one day the she-bird flew off and never returned.Clearly inspired by the quality of the writing Sir Mark and the Hallé performed Sea Drift to sublime effect. The rocking motion of the sea waves is evoked throughout this heavily atmospheric score, shaped with delicacy and played with a shimmering radiance. I don't think I've heard the beautifully blended Hallé Choir in finer voice. The sudden entry of the choir in ' Shine! Shine! Shine!' was gloriously rendered and the collaborative section for the choir 'O rising stars!' and baritone Roderick Williams 'Shake out carols!' was interpreted with poignant intensity. A soloist at his peak, baritone Williams sang with consummate skill; so natural and unaffected. It was no surprise that at times the substantial orchestra overpowered the baritone. I would be interested to hear if the Radio 3 broadcast placed the soloist further forward.No complaints about the opening work on the programme.

Four Sea Interludes
from the opera Peter Grimes is as enduringly popular as Vince Cable threatening to cut a banker's bonus. I recall an impressive performance of the Britten score last May in Munich with Andrew Manze conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra on the same night that Bayern Munich were playing in the UEFA Champions League Final. The German audience was captivated by the Four Sea Interludes and if the applause was anything to go by so was a satisfied Bridgewater Hall audience. In his element with this repertoire Sir Mark and the Hallé convincingly captured the Britten's rugged seascape. With Dawn I could almost feel the sting of the lashing rain and imagine seabirds floating on the dawn breeze.Sunday Morning brought the honoured brass to the fore complete with dancing woodwind figures. Chilling with a strange sense of isolation Moonlight was an almost ethereal experience. In the Storm I loved the angry and snarling brass and the dark, cavernous low strings provided significant menace.

It was the prospect of hearing Berlioz's Harold in Italy that drew me to the concert. Commissioned by the great virtuoso Paganini to show off his recently acquired Stradivarius viola it was no surprise that he initially rejected the score. What Paganini wanted was a traditional concerto to display his virtuosity.Harold in Italy isn't that type of score. Like a wandering minstrel the soloist is free from excessive technical display and rests for much of the time. Inspired by Lord Byron's narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Berlioz visualised the solo viola in four scenes as representing the incurable romantic dreamer Childe-Harold on his wanderings through Italy. For the most part the deep rich tone of soloist Lawrence Power's Antonio Brensi (c.1610) viola filled the hall. Although no fault of the soloist there were occasions when the viola was drowned out by the sheer power of the orchestra. It's a shame we can't have a sharp word with Monsieur Berlioz about his orchestration. Sir Mark ensured that the Hallé wrapped the audience in warm swathes of romantic sound. I must remark on the ambrosial string timbre also the ravishing playing of the oboe principal and cor anglais.What to do during Childe-Harold's long rests has been a perennial problem for any solo violist. Last September at the Musikfest Berlin I attended a performance of Harold in Italy with the LSO under Daniel Harding with Tabea Zimmermann as viola soloist. Zimmermann made a deliberate decision to sit on a stool when she (depicting the Childe-Harold) wasn't playing during the longer rests. Power chose a more theatrical effect. Towards the conclusion of the score during the longest period when the viola was silent Power walked off the stage. At the appropriate time he reappeared and continued to play his ghostly passage from a high position at the rear of the stage, at the side of the organ loft. Seven out of ten for imagination but the novelty didn't work for me. Most of the audience were left wondering where the soloist had gone. Was there a problem? Had he broken a string? Was he suddenly taken ill? Would he be coming back? Worst of all the audience concentration had been disrupted, breaking the spell.

Michael Cookson


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