Hallé/Elder review – Elgar's first mesmerises from the very start

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Putting the composer’s majestic symphony at the top of the bill was an excellent decision in a revealing, if unorthodox, evening

For the opening concert of the Hallé’s three-day Elgar mini festival, Mark Elder felt compelled to make an announcement to assure us there had not been a printing error in the programme. Yes, he really did intend to start the concert with the majestic First Symphony and follow it with a second half of lighter bits and pieces.

There was method to this strange choice of sequencing, however. As Elder explained, it was commonplace in Elgar’s day for the main event to be placed before the interval. It kept one’s concentration fresh for an expansive reading of the First Symphony that nudged towards the hour mark, although the mesmerising adagio seemed to drift in a state of endless suspension like a fine mist.

The early Froissart overture painted a pageant-like image of medieval chivalry that proved that, despite receiving no formal training in orchestration, the young Elgar instinctively understood orchestras. The incidental music for WB Yeats and George Moore’s obscure drama Grania and Diarmid featured a spellbindingly monodic spinning song for a druidess, captivatingly sung by Madeleine Shaw, which revealed a thread of Gaelic mysticism to Elgar’s output. It segued straight into the third and least familiar of the Pomp and Circumstance marches, a febrile piece with rhythmic jitters that imply the opposite of jingoism. Overall, the programme made the case for Elgar as a European modernist rather than a country patrician, and thoroughly vindicated the decision to play the horse first and the cart afterwards.

The Elgar festival is at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, until 12 March. Box office: 0161-907 9000.

Contributor

Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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