The Southbank Centre’s year-long series The Rest is Noise (named after Alex Ross’ award winning book) continued its survey of 20th century music with this rewarding concert by the Hallé and its Music Director, Sir Mark Elder. The second month of the series explores the concept of nationalism in music and, in keeping with this theme, the programme featured the music of Vaughan Williams, Ravel and Janáček.
In a reversal of normal programming practice, the concert opened with the longest and most substantial work on the programme, Vaughan Williams’ Second Symphony, also known as ‘A London Symphony’. Dating originally from 1913, the score includes such local identifying features as the chimes of the Palace of Westminster’s clock tower (better known as Big Ben), the jingle of passing hansom cabs, and the call of a lavender seller (notated while in Chelsea in 1911). Vaughan Williams subsequently revised and shortened the symphony, but retained these key reminiscences of the capital in the score.
Elder’s interpretation was responsive to every aspect of Vaughan Williams’ imaginative score, communicating not only the bustling energy of the first and third movements, but also the melancholy of the slow movement and the deep anguish of the finale. The playing of the Hallé (making their first visit to the Royal Festival Hall for nearly 20 years) was exceptionally precise and well balanced, and there were superb solo contributions from the trumpet and viola in the slow movement. The results were very moving.
A considerably different atmosphere was conjured by Ravel’s languorous song cycle Shéhérazade, composed in 1903 to words by the splendidly named Tristan Klingsor (in reality the pseudonym of the French writer and painter Léon Leclère). The three songs were given a deeply expressive and strongly characterised interpretation by the mezzo soprano Christine Rice, who was supported by a luminous and deeply felt accompaniment under Elder. The only disappointment here was the failure to provide either surtitles or a translation in the programme, preventing non French speakers from appreciating the details of Klingsor’s exotic poems.
Another stylistic leap brought us to the final work of the concert, Janáček’s orchestral suite Taras Bulba, depicting three scenes from Nikolai Gogol’s historical novella of the same name. Completed in 1918, the work finds Janáček at the height of his powers, ready to embark on his final five great operas. As before, the interpretation showed evidence of having been carefully prepared, a good example being the placement of first and second violins together on the left compared with the antiphonal layout used for the Vaughan Williams symphony earlier. If the concluding apotheosis did not quite reach the heights, the journey there was both sumptuous and dramatic.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.