The Hallé began its new season in fine style with the kind of skilful and passionate performance that is the hallmark of this fine musical institution. In the Hallé‘s hands, the audience was by turns waltzed through opulent fairy tale ballrooms, guided into the deep, dark woods and given a glimpse of the long vanished world of pre-revolutionary Russian art.
The evening at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall began with scenes from the ballet Cinderella, long considered one of Sergey Prokofiev’s most melodic of works and first premiered, to great critical and popular acclaim, at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in November 1945. At this point in time, audiences everywhere were desperate for any chance to escape the daily horror that had been their wartime lives, and nowhere was this more true than in Russia where the vast scale of casualties and carnage had been exacerbated by more than a quarter of a century of Soviet oppression. Into this grim and austere world the great composer was able to bring some much needed light and joy with a ballet that the renowned dancer Rudolf Nureyev was later to describe as the most westernised work ever written by Prokofiev.
While current cutbacks and rumours of war may be unsettling, we live in a world not nearly as much in need of lightening as the one Prokofiev inhabited in 1945 – but we were lightened by the Hallé as they expertly went about constructing fabulous ballrooms, secret gardens and familiar fairytale faces. It’s always interesting to see just how well such characters are brought to life when one hears a score from a ballet in isolation from the physical performance of the dancers. In fact, on the night the various leitmotivs developed by Prokofiev were employed with exuberant expertise by the Hallé, and in our minds we watched our imaginary Cinderella, her passionate young prince and the evil tempered stepmother pirouette and pas de deux between the assembled musicians.
Throughout the evening, the conductor Hannu Lintu led the orchestra with a steel in his baton that matched the silvering of his hair, and doubtless the frock-coated Finn was delighted to be at the podium to conduct a piece by Sibelius, the great musical hero of his homeland. Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor was at times achingly beautiful, exquisitely melodic and, like so much that hails from the far European North, the dense darkness of the deep forest was always at hand. At the time of its writing (1905), Sibelius was mired in a particularly protracted bout of alcoholism and in this case the miracle of creation owes much to his wife Aino, who time and again trawled the bars and nightclubs of Helsinki, locating her errant husband and returning him to his work. And thank God she did, for without her endless fortitude and patience we might never have been treated to the virtuoso performance of the Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider.
There were times during his extraordinary performance where I was tempted to make a quick call to the Vatican to give them the good news that the age old debate as to the existence of the soul was finally at an end; its location and composition had been established beyond all doubt. Location? Manchester, at the end of Znaider’s arm. Composition? Wood, catgut and a skill so refined as to be positively mesmeric.
Post-interval we returned to Russia via Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition courtesy of an orchestration by Ravel. On the face of things Mussorgsky was taking us on a journey around the Hartman memorial exhibition, held in St Petersburg in 1874. Mussorgsky and Viktor Hartmann had been great friends and, upon the latter’s early death (he was just 39), an exhibition of the architect’s and painter’s work was held in the city’s Academy of Fine Arts.
But here’s the thing: Pictures at an Exhibition is at least as clever as it is dramatic for Mussorgsky is describing not only the works on display as a tribute to his friend, but also his interpretation of the Hartmann’s own subject matter. So the figures, the landscapes and the buildings become notation, and notation becomes melody, and all owe as much to the hinterland of Mussorgsky’s mind as they do to his conscious observations of Hartmann, his works and their friendship.
The Hallé rose splendidly to Mussorgsky’s challenge and in doing so conjured visions of spires, onion-shaped domes and the great, glorious gate at Kiev. In trying to encapsulate both the work and the performance in a single word, one is tempted to describe it as magisterial but, as my companion for the evening observed, the whole thing was so gloriously Russian. On reflection I think it was more than that, for it wasn’t just Russian, it was Romanov, so perhaps if both performance and piece are to be neatly defined, a more fitting word might be…imperial.