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Hallé, the Thursday series with Lawrence Power

Femke Colborne sets sail across the viola seas

Published on March 21st 2011.

Hallé, the Thursday series with Lawrence Power

The theme of the Hallé’s Thursday series concert last week was the sea, with ocean-themed works by Benjamin Britten and Frederick Delius setting the scene in the first half. The orchestra got off to a tentative start in the Britten, but once the ship had found its bearings it was full steam ahead – and when the world-class violist Lawrence Power appeared in the second half to play Hector Berlioz’s ‘Harold in Italy’, there wasn’t a lady in the house who didn’t get a slight case of sea legs.

Power, one of the best violists in the world today, tackled the solo part heroically, teasing out an incredible range of sounds and colours from his instrument.

The concert opened with four ‘Sea Interludes’ from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, written to be played during scene changes in a fully staged version of the opera. The first interlude, ‘Dawn’, opened with high strings and woodwind floating over a rumbling timpani, perhaps the sound of a seagull’s call echoing over the deep sea on a serene early morning.

The next interlude, ‘Sunday Morning’, began with the unmistakable sound of church bells played by the flutes, with some busy string and woodwind lines depicting the hustle and bustle of a community coming to life. The orchestra danced through this lively piece, which ended with the sound of actual bells in the percussion and some trilling flutes to represent early morning birdsong.

In ‘Moonlight’ the swelling, shimmering first violins painted pictures of the sea at night, and the ensuing ‘Storm’ brought everything you might expect – crashing cymbals were the sea hitting the rocks, with rolling violin lines creating the sound of foam breaking on the waves. The basses rumbled away throughout the piece, representing the sea’s sturdy depths.

A calm section in the middle was a brief break in the weather, but the sense of urgency never went away, and when the storm returned it was even more severe, with a cascading brass line at the end providing a final crashing wave. It was effective music, if not necessarily pleasant to listen to.

Delius’s Sea Drift is a rarely performed work that tells the story of a romance between two seagulls. It started off happily, a contemplative salute to the calm and comfort of love, with the repetitive rhythm in the basses again representing the swell of the sea.

Some confident singing from the Hallé Choir also added a sense of joy and the elation of love, with some quality top notes from the sopranos.

But soon it all goes wrong, and the female bird disappears, never to be seen again. At first there is a sense of wistful longing from the male bird, sung beautifully here by the baritone Roderick Williams. But the music becomes increasingly sad and desperate, with more rumbling in the basses and a shimmering harp line representing enduring memories of a better time.

Eventually the male bird cries out for his lost love, and a heartbreaking a cappella section from the choir is followed by a tragic moment of false hope – he thinks he can hear her and the music breaks briefly into a major chord, but the choir soon interrupts and shatters his illusions. Then the grief sets in, and the music becomes dark and reflective before finally returning to a mood of wistful reminiscence at the end.

Berlioz wrote ‘Harold in Italy’ – described as a ‘symphony with solo viola’ – for the great violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, but Paganini refused to play it because the viola part was not prominent enough. Perhaps if he could have seen Lawrence Power’s interpretation, he might have changed his mind.

Power, one of the best violists in the world today, tackled the solo part heroically, teasing out an incredible range of sounds and colours from his instrument. In the melancholy first movement he was refreshingly unselfconscious in his playing, showing great sensitivity and attention to detail. And by the looks on some of the orchestra’s faces, it wasn’t just the audience who were impressed.

There was spirited playing from both soloist and orchestra in the allegro sections, with conductor Mark Elder really bringing out the heavy romanticism in Berlioz’s music. In the fourth movement the audience held their breath as Power disappeared from the stage, but two minutes later he was up in the choir stalls, serenading us from the balcony in a move that added yet more romance to proceedings.

Twelve years after he joined the Hallé, captain Elder still has full commitment from his orchestra, and his accomplished conducting really brought out the passion in Berlioz’s music. I look forward to the next voyage.

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