The Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall, conducted by Sir Mark Elder; 5 October 2017.
Opening The Hallé’s 2017-18 season at The Bridgewater Hall, and their 160th season overall, is a program consisting of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, performed in its entirety. Not quite a packed house, but as the final audience members take their seats the venue is approaching full capacity and there is an anticipatory buzz for the start of this new series of concerts.
On stage too the orchestra and music director Sir Mark Elder are obviously excited to be back doing what they do best. Elder conducts the whole concert with a calm, steady authority. Dressed in all black, loose fitting pants and a prominently collared jacket/robe he almost resembles a Tai Chi master only without any leg movement. The orchestra gives an engaged, responsive and committed performance of all the scheduled pieces.
The Debussy is first. It’s a sultry, breathy rendition of this well-known musical setting of Mallarmé’s poem. The Prelude, completed in 1894, is regarded as one of the key moments in musical Impressionism and the Hallé get to grips wonderfully with the piece’s writhing melodies and subtle yet distinguishing textures that make it such a touchstone and turning point in the history of classical music.
The piece is known for being full of slightly unusual solos, and the woodwind features prominently since they introduce most of the main themes from the outset, but there is also that moment of sweeping clarity when at around halfway through the violins introduce their own luscious theme. The interplay between these themes and melodic ideas is important to how the piece works, as Simon Trevise writes: ‘Faune is unusual in Debussy’s orchestral output for its textural complexity, which seems paradoxical because of the abundance of instrumental solos in the context of a relatively small orchestra. The complexity resides above all in the upper melodic line, which is full of changing motives, varied rhythms, and winding shapes.’ In that string passage especially the playing is sensitive, emotive and perfectly weighted. But throughout the performance the orchestra establishes the mutative dimension of their various talents and show that they understand the intricacies of timbre and texture that Debussy’s score demands.
At the piece’s conclusion it’s hard not to ponder the strange life of an orchestral percussionist sometimes. You stand or sit there, stock-still for around ten minutes, counting, waiting, anticipating when you will come forward at that key moment only to clink together two of the tiniest cymbals, each about the same dimensions of a large hoop earring. These are vital and meticulously observed clinks though adding heightened atmosphere, release and a sense of finality to a drifting, gentle and delicate work.
The orchestra and conductor now step aside for a stage rearrangement. Chairs and music stands are repositioned, the concert grand is rolled into place and its wheels locked. Everyone returns and then Ukrainian born, Australian resident pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk quickly strides onto stage in a tuxedo with a long tail that he drapes over the piano stool. He winds his seat down low and is quickly ready to go, a quick glance between pianist and conductor indicates the readiness.
Ever the late, late Romantic, Rachmaninoff imbued Paganini’s well-known 24th Caprice for Solo Violin with a combination of furious Russian fire and passages of great tranquility and quietude. Written in 1934 the Rhapsody works its way through twenty-four variations, warping, contorting and inverting the original melody using different tempos, dynamic levels and moods.
Gavrylyuk plays the piece wittily, passionately and with a huge amount of panache. His playing is full of joy and sensitivity. The performance, simply put, is a piano bomb. At times he looks like a cat perched over a pool of koi karp, his head getting so close to the piano keys, which could be the surface of the pond, that you think he might start playing with his nose as well.
He is met with thunderous applause and takes no less than four stage bows, none of the applause wavering, just seeming to grow more appreciative in fact. Gavrylyuk has received several awards of international import, First Prize and the Gold Medal at the 1999 Horowitz International Piano Competition and the Gold Medal at the 2005 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition. On this evidence it’s more than apparent why that happened. His virtuosity is unique and distinctive.
For an encore he plays a spectacular improvisation on Mendelssohn’s famous ‘Wedding March’ from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, the theme is pulled and teased through many musical spaces, Gavrylyuk’s death-defying playing puts sparkling new life in an admittedly hackneyed melody. During both pieces it’s a wonder he doesn’t require a bespoke double width keyboard such is his exploration of the range of the piano.
The second-half of this concert is filled completely by Stravinsky’s The Firebird. The work, dating to 1910, is known as the start of Stravinsky’s great series of collaborations with the dancer and choreographer Sergei Diaghilev. Its story, drawn from traditional Russian fairytales, is that of the conflict between the sorcerer Kastchei/Koschei and the hero Prince Ivan. The titular Firebird is central to this through the magic feather she gives to Ivan after he captures and, mercifully, frees her. This feather offers Ivan her protection from danger, ultimately leading to the destruction of Katschei/Koschei.
No dancing tonight, but the Hallé do play the entire score which is fantastic to hear in Manchester. There have been several abbreviated rearrangements of the original score – Suites that date to 1911, 1919 and 1945 – and Stravinsky never intended it for separate performance from the ballet. However, tonight’s performance is captivating and offers no shortage of finesse. Stravinsky was perhaps unwise to be of this mindset since the dynamics and colours of the music are absolutely compelling on their own merits.
The story as represented by the musical narrative progresses quite seamlessly, building to a point of frenzied ascendancy towards the end of the work during ‘The Infernal Dance of Kastchei’s Subjects’ (i.e. those who his sorcery has turned to stone or otherwise possessed). Here, Stravinsky’s harshly staggered, syncopated rhythms are hammered home by the orchestra, especially in the brass and percussion sections. The other sections contribute freakish, near inscrutably kinetic melodies and phrases.
The seizured tumult that emerges out of relative serenity is deliberate musical design of course. The great contrast of this with the music that passes before and after is in a sense a typical Stravinskyan play, where traditional folk melodies and graceful, lilting channels of melody and assonance combine to symbolize the emergence of the mythical creature and Ivan’s garden pursuit of this.
Although there are no dancers during this performance, a point of visual interest for the audience does come in the form of three trumpeters and a percussionist with a set of tubular bells, who are all positioned in the choir seats from where they contribute intermittently, standing and moving forward underneath the audience in the high seats above them whom they are partially concealed from.
Increasingly, the concert hall has become a place to happily lose connection with a hyper-connected world due to traditional concert etiquette and the enclosed, dampened nature of these kinds of space. Inside such spaces this modern fixation can be replaced by a heightened connection with different musical networks, interfaces and signals. With the start of this new season and the promise of many upcoming concerts full of diverse programs, contrasting music and high-quality performances such as this, let the disconnection continue.