Review of the Hallé’s filmed concert at the Bridgewater Hall, released 29th July 2021

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé in The Firebird suite  c.The Hallé

The Hallé ‘Summer Season’ of live music in Manchester has included streamed film versions of three of the concerts, and the final one, which I had to miss seeing in person, is now available. Sir Mark Elder conducts and the programme is all Russian music: Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky.

A ‘Russian night’ was often a popular formula in the orchestra’s summer Proms a decade or so ago, but this was no set of Tchaikovsky and others’ greatest hits: though Stravinsky’s The Firebirdsuite would be a draw any time, the other two pieces are comparative rarities and it was a great idea to include them.

As through the entirely filmed ‘Winter Season’, the production standards of this document of the orchestra’s playing are extremely high. The virtuosity of the camera operation and mixing and the splendour of the recorded sound are almost the equal of the musicians’ playing in itself. And again there are bits of chat between items, from Sir Mark and a number of orchestra members and staff, which are fascinating to hear and bring light to the whole experience. There’s also something unexpected, both at the beginning and the end: the former a rather superfluous succession of thank you statements from and about Siemens for their sponsorship (not that those are undeserved, but they dampen the atmosphere a bit at the start) – the latter I’ll tell you about later.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan proved a rich mine of sonic jewels and musical storytelling. Its opening depiction of the Tsar setting out on a journey leapt into life with precise and spritely jollifications, and the following seascape (not completely unlike the one in Scheherazade) had plenty of subtlety in Sir Mark’s reading – the rolling billows had to be kind enough for a princess and baby to survive floating on them in a barrel, according to the story. The music worked up a head of steam, however, for the finale’s picture of golden-helmeted knights and their galloping steeds, in which the orchestra, led by Kanako Ito and spread out on the extended stage as so often before in their lockdown era, sounded magnificent.

Rachmaninov’s The Rock is an early work and interesting if only for the signs of the genius to come, but it was played with such care and love that the beginnings of his extraordinary gift for uncurling, everlasting melodies proved a wonderful vehicle for the woodwind players and for heartstring-tugging tone from the violins. And the sweet and thrilling sounds continued in Stravinsky’s The Firebird suite (1945 version), the Final Hymn, dramatically punched out in its emphatic ending, no less than the thunderous Infernal Dance.

One of the memorable things about these filmed performances (and I seemed to notice it more in this than most others) is the chance to see the conductor as the orchestra see him … and indeed in close-up, too. It’s an experience in itself, and gives you an insight into the art of the musician who never makes a sound but enables all the others to do so as one.

And the unexpected final bit? Rimsky-Korsakov wrote The Flight of the Bumble Bee for The Tale of Tsar Saltan, though it’s not in the suite. It comes as a bonus (or an encore if you like to think of it so) at the end of the film.


The recording of the concert is available until 29 October: link