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Hallé at the Proms

R. Strauss: Macbeth
Britten: Les Illuminations
Nielsen: Symphony No.4, 'The Inextinguishable'
Joan Rodgers soprano
Hallé / Mark Elder conductor

Royal Albert Hall 27 July 2007

The tone poem Macbeth is relatively unfamiliar music by Richard Strauss. It predates works such as Don Juan and was the composer’s first essay in the tone poem genre, begun at the age of 22. This is a work that at times displays the inexperience of the composer but this in no way should be held as the reason for the work’s relative obscurity.

Macbeth has elements that point to Strauss’s later stage and orchestral directions. It was therefore appropriate that Elder’s reading was informed by his understanding of later works and the Straussian idiom in general. The interpretation clearly drew out the musical lines used to paint the characters of Shakespeare’s drama, and some have done so with greater emphasis on the rough edges and fatal flaws which control the destiny of the Macbeths.

Elder could be said to be Romantic in some respects, though the music never fell to syrupy mush, which would be totally misplaced. This is music that has become more embedded in the Hallé’s fingertips since their 2005 recording of it, and they performed it with relish for the rich sonorities of Strauss’ orchestration.

Britten’s Les Illuminations replaced Our Hunting Fathers at short notice due to the indisposition of soprano Lisa Milne. Joan Rodgers took her place as soloist and offered a performance that emphasised a luxuriant side to her tone, even if this came at the expense of rather individualised word-pointing such as one gets from other Britten interpreters. Orchestrally, things were a little scrappy at times, showing the brief rehearsal time the work had in all probability been given.

Scrappy playing was not a quality in the Hallé’s performance of Nielsen’s fourth symphony, 'The Inextinguishable'. Nielsen is always referred to as a symphonist. Not having heard a symphony by him for many years in concert I had high hopes for this performance. (I had been disappointed by Maskerade when staged at Covent Garden a couple of seasons ago.) Mark Elder’s attraction to the work was immediately apparent given that it allows opportunities for every department of the orchestra to have its place in the spotlight.

But if the composer envisaged the work as an organic whole – certainly a view of it that Elder tried to encourage – to my ears it sounded too episodic as the focus of the musical content moved around the orchestra with little in the way of formal structure to maintain an integrated whole. This, for a symphonist’s most convincing work in the genre is something less than might be desired. Consequently, despite the fine playing and dedication of the Hallé musicians the work proved to be something of a let down. What then are Nielsen’s genuinely strong compositions?

Evan Dickerson