This superb concert from Mark Elder and the Hallé orchestra proved yet another memorable addition to the 2007 Proms season.
It attracted a pitifully small audience, but then Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony is hardly the greatest crowd-pleaser.Those who did turn up on Friday evening were treated to three thrilling, committed performances from an orchestra at the top of its game.
Nielsen’s symphony, The Inextinguishable, shrieks with the terror of war. Swelling valleys of scrubbing strings, anguished brass motifs and battling, antiphonal timpani powerfully evoke the European conflict of 1916, when the work was completed. In the sound of a delicately probing flute line coupled with an ominous, hushed roll of timpani gunfire, the desolation and shattered innocence of the time is palpably suggested; the pastoral woodwind in the Poco allegretto provides tragically ironic counterpoint.
Elder’s reading was carefully prepared and thoroughly engrossing. It is not easy to bring this work off successfully, but here was a sensitive and alert reading. A great sense of conflict was communicated in the outer movements and the overall shaping (so crucial here, for Nielsen broke down the barriers of the four movements and composed in one sweep) was expertly judged. Tempi were spacious, perhaps to excess at times – that allegretto threatened to grind to a stasis midway through. But the Hallé’s playing was superb, with the pregnant, weighty strings and grimly sinister horns especially notable. It was a pleasure to hear such secure violins in the Beethovenian link between movements one and two. Only in the work’s final bars did the Albert Hall acoustic misbehave, stealing some glorious splendour from the hard-worked major key conclusion.
The performance of Strauss’ tone-poem Macbeth was equally commendable. The opening layered, brassy crescendo immediately grabbed the attention; a rampant, sadistic sexuality oozed from Strauss’ thick, sweeping string and brass melodies; the phantasmagoric, deathly passages of skating woodwind fragments evocatively suggested the spooky corridors of Glamis Castle. Realising that the orchestration is thick and immensely luxurious, Elder took care to illuminate every orchestral section and strike an equally weighted balance. Shakespeare appears much in the Proms this season, and this was as visceral and gutsy a performance as we will hear.
And in the place of Our Hunting Fathers, the work advertised, was Britten’s more popular song cycle Les Illuminations. Joan Rodgers was a persuasive exponent. Her light, easily produced soprano may not be to the taste of all in this rich, sensual music, but it worked admirably for me. Her portamento in Strophe was subtly seductive, she dealt well with Seascape‘s virtuosic melismatic vocal writing, her parlando-style delivery in Parade was but one example of a consistently imaginative, colourful delivery. And Mark Elder uncovered all the suggestive quirkiness of Britten’s strumming, trilling string accompaniments.