February 29 2020
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Two last symphonies which gave the audience much to cheer about
It was good to see Sir Mark Elder back on the RCH’s podium on Saturday. His recent injury meant that audiences have had to miss not only fine conducting but also his invariably illuminating, engaging introductions to the music. Although his physical gestures were a bit more cautious than usual, he didn’t hold back when whetting appetites for the programme.
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is such a monumental cornerstone of western culture that the problem arises of what to put with it. To choose another last symphony, No 7 by Prokofiev, was inspired, since it would be hard to think of two works which inhabit such wildly different sound worlds. And choosing Prokofiev also allowed Sir Mark to entertain with stories of the composer’s genius not only for music but also for chess, bridge, writing stories…and for acquiring so many girlfriends that he gave them numbers because he couldn’t remember their names.
Prokofiev’s 7th was originally designed with children in mind, full of catchy tunes and the sort of magical fantasy found in his fairytale ballets. Its simplicity and lack of profundity have meant that critics have often been sniffy about it. However, Sir Mark clearly loves it and his passion rubbed off on orchestra and audience. He took his time to allow ideas to breathe and for details to register. The opening seemed almost tragic but alleviated by a gloriously soaring theme (which could have stepped out of Cinderella) and a more enigmatic tune with harp and bells accompaniment. The finale’s jolly gallop was a delight and even better for Sir Mark’s choice of endings. Prokofiev wrote two but clearly preferred the more wistful one – and the Hallé proved that he was right.
It was perhaps inevitable that their performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony would get a standing ovation, but the Hallé earned it. Chiselled, precise phrasing; tight rhythms; muscular playing; propulsive energy: just a few of the qualities of the first two movements. And then the Adagio’s sublimely hushed opening and the seamlessly interwoven variations that follow.
In the great choral finale the orchestra was joined by a fine team of soloists (Elizabeth Atherton, Sarah Castle, Stuart Jackson and Neal Davies) and by a Hallé Choir who sang from memory and with passionate conviction the message that all humanity shall be brothers. In the cold light of day this may seem hopelessly naive but on Saturday there seemed no doubt and many listening rose to their feet to cheer that they agreed.
Elizabeth Atherton, soprano
Sarah Castle, mezzo-soprano
Stuart Jackson, tenor
Neal Davies, bass
Sir Mark Elder, conductor