The first of the three pieces on offer this evening was Variations On A Theme By Haydn, by Johannes Brahms. Before last night I had never heard of this particular piece of music, that was until I read the programme notes - which, by the way, are always detailed, excellent and informative - and realised that of course I DID know it, but by its other title, Variations On The St. Anthony Chorale. The music was played with a lightness and brightness that continued throughout the concert. Sharp, crystal clear notes of melody against the backdrop of orchestral harmony.
Not once throughout the entire concert was the music ever allowed to be sentimental or maudlin. Never did the music stray into the dark and heavy territory of the tragic-heroic. The music was always light, alive, fresh and above all playful. This can only be thanks to the conductor of the concert, Christian Mandeal, whose conducting reflected this in his not particularly conducting the time signature, but conducting the EMOTION! He was constantly challenging the orchestra to comply with his very many demands of dynamic changes and to make the music dance, as he himself was doing several times on the podium! His balletic antics made for very energetic conducting and it was fascinating to watch the way in which he stopped the orchestra from being too loud, too slow and too declamatory. Everything had to flow and be a dance! Fortunately the programme last night lent itself perfectly to this approach. I can't see it working with Wagner or Bruckner though! (lol)
The second piece was Bruch's Scottish Fantasy (opus 46). Bruch himself was something of a virtuoso violinist and in this piece he makes sure that the soloist doesn't relax, especially in the final movement, when nothing short of a master of the instrument would be able to pull it off. But this piece of music also requires an excellent harpist too. It is Celtic music after all, and although the harp is neither a Scottish instrument nor does the harpist actually have any solo passages, didn't seem to matter to Bruch when he composed the work grandly entitling it 'Fantasy For The Violin And Harp Freely Using Scottish Folk Melodies'.
The harpist was the Halle's own, Marie Leonhardt, who moved to a rather unusual centre stage spot, and delighted us with her perfect playing. However, she was somewhat overshadowed by the violinist who was guest soloist Sophia Jaffe. What an incredible performer she is too, making the violin sound so alive! She received a round of applause that brought her back for two subsequent bows, and to finish the first half, she delighted the audience by playing a small encore. It was a Sarabande by J.S. Bach for solo violin.
The Fantasy is in four movements, and without reading the programme notes, I would not have recognised the first movement as being in any way Scottish at all. It's only when the start of the second movement gives us the drone of the bagpipes and above this the violinist playing a jig that I really know we are in Scotland. I loved the playful tit-for-tat that happened between violinist and flute. The final movement is a variation of a folk song that I remember my mother singing in my childhood, but I don't remember it being called 'Scots Wha Hae' as the programme suggests.
After the interval and it was time for Schumann to take the spotlight as the orchestra played his first symphony, The Spring Symphony.
I would never have classed myself as someone who was particularly fond of Schumann. However it really amazes me every time I watch music being played, just how different one's appreciation and understanding of the music is altered and deepened by watching as well as just listening. I enjoyed watching Mr. Mandeal conduct the entire symphony from memory infusing the orchestra with his always light and bright style, and seeing the different parts of the orchestra respond accordingly when he, Gandalf-like, thrust his arm with pointed finger their way.
I always thought of Schumann as being soppy and sentimental, but I really enjoyed listening to this symphony; it is alive with colour and melody. I might just have to listen to some more Schumann now to see if my opinion of him has changed for the better.
Once again, thank you Halle Orchestra for playing so perfectly and beautifully. It's always a pleasure and a privilege being in your company.
Reviewer: Mark Dee
Reviewed: 21st January 2016