Manchester in October and memories of summer are fading fast. The days grow shorter, the mornings crisper, and iron-grey clouds hang low over the city’s Gothic skyline. But every season has its compensations, and autumn’s are the glorious colouring of the leaves, the return of Bovril, and a new season for the Hallé Orchestra.
Last Thursday saw the Hallé open its new series in a fine style with, as ever, a programme which demonstrated the versatility of the orchestra, along with its ongoing capacity to attract some of the most talented virtuoso performers.
The evening began with that much loved concert hall favourite Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) by Claude Debussy, one of his most famous works and considered by many to be a turning point in the history of music. The Prelude saw the Hallé gently blow away the cobwebs of the old season with an accomplished performance. Special mention should be made of the flautists, led by Katherine Baker, who skillfully weaved the dreams and desires of the eponymous Faun, enticing the audience into its balmy, summer’s glade.
Next up was Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Sergey Rachmaninov’s 1934 concertante, a notoriously challenging piece for the piano soloist, so much so in fact that Rachmaninov doubted his own ability to cope with its demands, breaking his own abstinence and necking a glass of crème de menthe before his own performance at the Rhapsody’s premiere. I have no idea what Russian-born pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk does to steady his nerves, but by god, it works.
At first I was uncertain about Gavrylyuk’s idiosyncratic flourishes at the keyboard. Fingers were directed towards keys at what seemed like painfully acute angles, hands were crossed with increasing frequency and the animation of his whole body began to suggest that some mischievous musical gremlin had wired the keys to the Bridgewater’s electrical grid.
But Gavrylyuk’s virtuoso performance soon dispelled any doubts as pianist and piano melded into one electrifying instrument of melodic glory, for which the concert-goers cheered him to the echo.
After his encore, he returned to delight orchestra and audience alike with an impromptu rendition of Mendelsohn’s Wedding March. As one concert-goer put it during the interval, Gavrylyuk’s performance had been “an 11 out of ten”.
After the interval came the main event, Igor Stravinsky’s music for the 1910 ballet The Firebird, set in the fairy-tale world of Kastchei’s palace, Kastchei being an immortal evil ogre with a taste for casting spells over beautiful princesses and petrifying brave knights.
Into this dangerous, nightmarish world stumbles gallant Prince Ivan in pursuit of a Firebird whom he captures but pardons upon the entreaties of the magical bird. In return, the creature promises to come to his aid should he require it, which is just as well as there are monsters aplenty to vanquish and a beautiful princess to rescue.
After the triumphant performance of the Rhapsody, I feared an anti-climax might be in the offing. However, with the Hallé’s musical director Sir Mark Elder wielding the conductor’s baton, The Firebird proved to be an even greater triumph.
Contrast seemed to be the theme: low opening stings laced with menace, graduating through a graceful solo oboe through to defiant and heroic trumpet calls, morphing into a full symphonic clash between good and evil before rising to a melodic crescendo to stir the blood and gladden the heart. This really was orchestra and conductor at their best and a fine way to mark the change of seasons.
Main image: Sir Mark Elder by Simon Dodd