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Verdi, Mozart, Elgar: Martin Helmchen (piano), Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 24. 2.2011 (MC)

Overture: Luisa Miller

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.17 in G major, K453

Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in A flat, op.55

On the stage prior to the second half of the concert music-writer Michael Kennedy who has done so much to promote Elgar's music was presented with the Elgar Society Medal.  Try as I might I couldn't detect a theme for this Hallé programme. However any concert that includes a Mozart piano concerto has something good going for it and the inclusion of one of the Elgar symphonies seemed like a windfall bonus. Listening to a Verdi overture often feels as if I'm settling down at the opera house in anticipation of a Verdi production and then feeling disappointed when the curtain isn't raised. Agreeable but not one of Verdi's greatest offerings, the overture to Luisa Miller seemed to be over in a flash. Unusual in that it's designed predominantly at one pace and employs an attractive single theme as the basis for the overture. Coming as a blessed relief there is a modest hastening of the tempo towards the conclusion. For openers something more unusual, or more challenging - such as a contemporary score - might have provided more satisfaction.

Berlin born pianist Martin Helmchen was the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No.17. A product of his late twenties the Vienna based composer wrote this engaging G major score for one of his pupils Barbara von Ployer. Clearly a fine Mozartian, Helmchen's velvet gloved performance was characterised by sophistication and delicacy. Maintaining a Classical restraint, Helmchen unfolded a veil of heartbreak over the virtuous Andante. The accomplished soloist made it all seem so very easy capturing the vivacity and charm of the concluding movement. In the finale I was certainly reminded of the music of Papageno, the ridiculous feather-suited bird-catcher from the opera The Magic Flute that Mozart composed some seven years later. Quite splendid was the accompaniment from the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder.

The combination of an Elgar symphony; the Hallé Orchestra; Sir Mark conducting and an enthusiastic Bridgwater hall audience is an alchemist's dream. The potion certainly drew a large audience of admirers to Elgar's Symphony No. 1, a score that Sir Mark must have conducted countless times. Having been entrusted by Elgar to give the 1908 première of the score at Manchester's Free Trade Hall under Hans Richter the First Symphony runs through the lifeblood of the Hallé Orchestra. In view of all this emotional attachment there was a heavy expectation for the Hallé to deliver and deliver they did. Marked by the heroic march theme Sir Mark conducts an expansive reading of the opening movement. The impressively controlled increase in weight and tempo was carried out to spine-tingling effect. With its scuttling and darting main theme the Scherzo-like second movement contains an impressive thrusting momentum. Elgar's colourful music has become indelibly associated with imagery especially of the Monarchy of Edwardian England. At first I visualised the pageantry of a ceremonial event in Whitehall that then refocused to evoke a view of a rowdy Parliamentary debate. The transition to the heartbreaking theme of the Adagio was seamless. This is now intensely passionate music combined with the scent and sounds of nature. In this frame of mind the sections of the Hallé are an alliance made in heaven. Towards the conclusion of the movement I felt the deep sorrow of lovers parting perhaps on a long ocean voyage. The final movement begins almost furtively with an undercurrent of foreboding. Sir Mark provides robust rhythms in a passage high in buccaneering spirit before the return of the principal march theme. In this music of grandeur it is easy to imagine an important State occasion in Horse Guards Parade. Those Hallé strings improve each time I hear them, especially the ebony tinged, rich low strings. Striking was the brass with the trombones in tremendous form. One cannot fail to mention the beautiful playing from the woodwind.

There are no better Elgarians around when Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé Orchestra take wing in music that just runs through their veins.

Michael Cookson


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