The violins dashed flamboyantly through the brilliant opening passage-work of Berlioz’s overture, Le corsaire, initiating a vibrant - perhaps at times bombastic - account of this impetuous, playful score. Composed during a sojourn in Nice in 1844 (and originally entitled "La Tour de Nice"), the imaginative instrumentation and material of the overture prompted a reviewer of the first performance, at the Cirque Olympique on 19 January 1845, to remark that the work was ‘perhaps the strangest and most peculiar composition to have been created by the imagination of a musician’. If the Hallé did not quite find the requisite timbral brilliance, there was still much exuberance and some fine playing.
I did not feel that Elder was entirely successful in stitching together the various musical ideas into a tight, coherent form, but the slow introduction had a more reflective dignity which contrasted effectively with the ostentation of the principal Allegro theme. There was a breathlessness about the rapidly succeeding moods and idioms, canons giving way to dances, both interrupted by brief reiterations of the thunderbolt chords of the opening. The brass were given free rein at the close and their brazen roar was perhaps indicative of the joyful satisfaction which Berlioz experienced as he looked from his turret room ‘perched on a ledge of the Ponchettes rock, and feasted myself on the glorious view over the Mediterranean and tasted a peace such as I had come to value more than ever’, and as recorded in the composer’s Memoirs. Despite the Byronic resonance of the title, there is no direct link between the poet and Berlioz’s piratical overture, but Elder ensured that a resolute Byronic spirit of invincibility shone through.
A similar richness of experience was conveyed by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in a nuanced, highly thoughtful performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, in which clear, expressive communication of the five poetic texts was matched by ever-modulating vocal tones and shades perfectly attuned to the poetic sentiment.
Sea Pictures, nestled between the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius, was commissioned by the Norwich Festival for performance in 1899. It is the composer’s only song-cycle for voice and orchestra, and the orchestral version was not written until after Elgar’s first rehearsal with the then up-and-coming contralto, Clara Butt, in August 1899. Butt reputedly wore a dress resembling a mermaid; Coote preferred a beautiful blue-green coat-dress more suggestive of Prospero’s island-magic than a maritime nymph, an effect enhanced by the aquamarine glow from the stage-bordering frieze. She certainly employed her vocal alchemy to enchant and transfix all present.
From the opening bars of ‘Sea Slumber-Song’ (text by Roden Noel) the Hallé powerfully evoked the ebb and flow of the unknowable deep, and it was from this surging wash that Coote’s rich mezzo emerged, an organic extension of the lapping orchestral waters. The low hushed phrases, as the ‘Sea murmurs her slumber song, on the shadowy sand’, were warmly projected and a mood of peace was established by the lullaby-rocking and rich vocal hues. Coote’s full, glowing middle and lower register easily countered Elgar’s, at times, weighty brass and wind orchestration.
Matching Coote’s attentiveness to textual detail, Elder encouraged picture-painting from the Hallé, glissandi flourishes from the harp and decorative sextuplet from the violins and flute evoking ‘this elfin land’ and soft timpani trembling echoing the distant, rolling waves. The concluding repetitions, ‘Good night’, were beautifully shaped and placed, and Elder left us elusively chasing a glistening, rising wave.
‘In Haven (Capri)’ was similarly hypnotic and consoling, the siciliano rhythm lulling and relaxed, the gentle accompaniment lightly articulated and effectively supporting the simple text penned by Elgar’s wife, Alice. Coote’s charming vocal line was poised and graceful, coloured by instrumental interjections emerging from the transparent texture. Only in the third stanza - ‘Kiss my lips and softly say:/ “Joy, sea-swept, may fade today;/ Love alone will stay.’ - did the voice swell with emotion, complemented by sonorous playing from the violins.
‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) was by turns more turbulent and more grandiose, Coote responding affectingly to the enlarged tessitura and dynamic range of the song. Elder manipulated the tempo flexibly and the suggestion of unsettled currents was enhanced by crisp triplets from the brass. The impassioned climax was powerful - “And, on that sea commixed with fire,/ Oft drop their eyelids raised too long/ To the full Godhead’s burning!”, the strings rolling forcefully through the wave-like motif from the opening ‘Sea Slumber-Song’.
Graceful woodwind solos complemented Coote’s in ‘Where Corals Lie’ (the verse is by the prodigious Pre-Raphaelite Richard Garnett the younger), particularly at the start of the second stanza, and the closing cadence was imbued with a sense of peace and hope.
Coote’s ability to control the expressive and dramatic form of the Sea Pictures was apparent in the final song, ‘The Swimmer’ (text, Adam Lindsay Gordon) which built from the dramatic orchestral pedal which opens the movement, through fluid recitative and stormy, impassioned song to an ardent climax, as the mezzo avowed her faith in a place ‘where no love wanes’. There was great intensity, suggestive of a yearning for transfiguration in death, and Coote’s soaring, glossy upper register cut effortlessly through thick orchestration which includes percussion and organ. This was a consummate and enthralling performance
In the second half of the concert, an expansive yet vigorous account of Beethoven’s 'Eroica' was prefaced by Near Midnight by the Associate Composer to the Hallé Orchestra, Helen Grime, which was receiving its London premiere having first been heard in May 2012, conducted by Elder, at the Bridgewater Hall.
Taking its inspiration from a poem by D.H. Lawrence, ‘Week-night service’, Grime summons a restless mood, ceaselessly manipulating the orchestral colours in a manner reminiscent of Oliver Knussen:
"The five old bells
Are hurrying and eagerly calling,
They know, but clamorously falling
Into gabbling incoherence, never resting,
Like spattering showers from a bursten sky-rocket dropping
In splashes of sound, endlessly, never stopping".
There is much tumult - the brass section’s strident recurring fanfares were superbly executed and the ostinato repetitions had a disturbing, mechanic brittleness - as well as gloomy shadow and melancholy. The undulating rumblings of double basses and low harp and brass, supplemented by bells, at the start were particularly redolent of nocturnal misgivings. Nonetheless, the quieter third section which is the most moving of the work’s various parts. Here, the tender, meandering string line is supplemented by expressive flourishes from woodwind, harp and celeste The final section, too, sombre and reflective, laden with the static stillness of midnight, brought forward touching solos from the oboe, clarinet, bassoon and muted trumpet. I should very much like to hear this composition again.
Elder had little time for period ‘authenticity’ in an account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major , 'Eroica', which winningly combined majesty and vitality. There was momentum but not haste; romantic feeling but judicious restraint. The scalic and arpeggio-based melodies had eloquence and lyricism, and there was an appropriate bite to the rhythmic motivic development. The ‘Funeral March’ was especially heart-felt and show-cased some wonderful solo-playing by oboist Stéphane Rancourt. The driving motifs of the Scherzo were crisply and cleanly articulated, and dynamic contrasts were used effectively to supplement the feeling of unstoppable forward motion. Throughout the sound was full and resonant, with antiphonal violins and the cellos and double bass sections also separated and spatially opposed. Once more, Elder let the horns rip through the end of the Finale (four of them rather than Beethoven’s indicated trio of valve-less horns); a majestic, celebratory ending to a super evening of music-making.
Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Mark Elder, conductor; Hallé Orchestra
Berlioz, Overture, Le Corsaire; Elgar, Sea Pictures; Helen Grime, Near Midnight; Beethoven, Symphony No.3 in Eb major, Eroica.
Photo: Sir Mark Elder, courtesy Ingpen & Williams