Thursday 27 July 2023

Prom 16: Sir Mark Elder & the Hallé in Rachmaninoff's The Bells & Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

Rachmaninoff: The Bells - Sir Mark Elder & the Hallé - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Rachmaninoff: The Bells - the Hallé - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Rachmaninoff: The Bells, Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; The Hallé, the Hallé Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, Mané Galoyan, Dmytro Popov, Andrei Kymach, Sir Mark Elder; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Rachmaninoff's complex choral masterpiece in a virtuoso performance followed by a gripping account of Shostakovich's best known and perhaps most complex symphony

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé made their visit to the BBC Proms on Wednesday 26 July 2023 when Sir Mark Elder conducted Rachmaninoff's The Bells and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 at the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Hallé Choir plus soloists soprano Mané Galoyan, tenor Dmytro Popov and baritone Andrei Kymach.

We began with Rachmaninoff's The Bells, his choral symphony based loosely on Edgar Allan Poe's poem, The Bells. Poe's poem was unpublished at the time of his death and it is notable for its free use of onomatopoeia. The Russian symbolist poet, Konstantin Balmont made a free translation of the Poe into Russian and it was this that Rachmaninoff set. The Bells preserves the four-part nature of Poe's poem, but Rachmaninoff uses the four sections to portray birth to death and he heightens the sense of fatalism that Balmont introduced into the words. The work was premiered in St Petersburg in 1913 but the First World War delayed publication and it was not premiered in the USA until 1920 and in the UK in 1921, conducted by Sir Henry Wood. However, it did not reach the Proms until 1973. 

Rachmaninoff: The Bells - Mané Galoyan, Dmytro Popov, Andrei Kymach, Sir Mark Elder & the Hallé - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Rachmaninoff: The Bells - Mané Galoyan, Dmytro Popov, Andrei Kymach, Sir Mark Elder & the Hallé - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The opening movement, Silver Sleigh Bells, began with a delightful orchestral introduction, all tight rhythms, energy and excitement, yet Balmont was a Symbolist poet, his words are complex, mixing sleigh bells with images of delusion and oblivion. The opening of the movement focused on the contrast between the skittish chorus and the dramatic narrative from tenor Dmytro Popov. The result was undeniably exciting, though I did wonder whether the balance quite worked; as it was, there was much to admire in the way the large chorus produced such controlled, lightly tripping sounds. The mood eased off in the middle, and of course the end reflected the final line, telling of oblivion. From an idea of birth, to a more direct link to marriage with Mellow Wedding Bells. This might be a wedding, but it was a serious one, the romantic opening music had a very serious undertow. The choir's entry was haunting and sober, contrasting with the radiant soprano of Mané Galoyan. She sang long spun lines, vibrant yet melancholy, and with a complex sense of seduction to them. The third movement, Loud Alarum Bells, is the scherzo, a tour de force for the chorus (for a 1936 performance that Sir Henry Wood conducted, the composer supplied simplified choral parts). The opening was full of tight rhythms and controlled excitement, whatever the volume. Not really skittish, this was highly characterful and I loved the way the chorus spat the words out in the quieter sections. The movement developed into a disturbing vision, leading to an alarming climax. Yet things unwound until the final climax at the end, with both orchestra and choir displaying terrific control. The final movement, Mournful Iron Bells began with a haunting cor anglais solo over atmospheric strings. Andrei Kymach's dark, vibrant baritone rung out over a web of magical sounds from orchestra and choir. Here the prevailing mood, particularly from Kymach was intense and melancholy, moving from the bleak to the vivid, the baritone's final section displayed ultimate fatalism, yet Rachmaninoff concluded with a lovely orchestral melody that Elder and the Hallé made almost, but not quite consoling.

Rachmaninoff: The Bells - Andrei Kymach, Sir Mark Elder & the Hallé - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Rachmaninoff: The Bells - Andrei Kymach, Sir Mark Elder & the Hallé - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 was premiered in Leningrad in 1937, some 24 years after the Rachmaninoff yet the two are worlds away. Shostakovich wrote the symphony after the disasters of 1936 and 1937 when people and music were purged. He had been urged to write music that was safe, full of folk tunes and with a joyous finale. Symphony No. 5 is not that, it is full of fear and hysteria, and yet the very end of the finale can seem triumphant. Or is it? That we still question what the symphony means is perhaps a reflection of the way Shostakovich caught the mood in just the right way.

Elder and his players made the motto theme at the opening feel austere, almost cool and the deliberate speed created a sense that this was unsettling. As the movement unfolded, Elder kept the speed steady and the orchestra on a tight rein, this was emotion under intense control, then suddenly there was the magical effect of the violin melody over throbbing spring. With the entry of the piano moving bass, energy increased but still that sense of disturbing control, and speed increased and excitement too, until the highly disturbing march and then a unison that was almost triumphant, but evaporates leaving the consoling violin melody, now on the flutes and the motto, barely there. The second movement was undoubtedly a dance, but a robustly sinister one. The orchestra displayed fine control as well as bringing out a strong sense of the colours in the music. The trio use a tune that was almost trivial, delightful perhaps but satirical too, and the pizzicato section of the opening material succeeded in rendering it intense indeed.

The long slow movement was a steady unfolding of intense feeling. Quiet and intimate at first, the music was almost consoling but then we had the cool austerity of the flutes and harps, and this austerity and almost painful intensity continued. A solo oboe highlighting the pain that the orchestra almost stripped bare. The strings promised some warmth, but the passage developed into intense emotionalism, before pulling back to an eerie sense of barely there. Throughout Elder and the musicians control was intense and this was a truly gripping performance, so the ending of the movement developed into edge-of-the-seat stuff, and we were not fooled by the warm chords at the end.

Rachmaninoff: The Bells - Mané Galoyan, Dmytro Popov, Andrei Kymach, Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé, Hallé Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Rachmaninoff: The Bells - Mané Galoyan, Dmytro Popov, Andrei Kymach, Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé, Hallé Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The vibrant energy of the final movement became something obsessive and neurotic, so that the triumphant tune felt anything but. Intense and austere, the music gave way to the disturbing march in the distance which built with a feeling of Elder tightening the screw until.... The radiant return of the major version of the music. Was it a triumph of the will? Perhaps. Undoubtedly, the complexity of the music and its questioning reflect the era in which it was written. What there is no doubt of is the superb playing of the Hallé and the simply gripping performance.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Greater than the sum of its parts: British Youth Opera perform Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress at the Three Choirs Festival - opera review
  • Eclectic mix: Gavin Higgins' The Faerie Bride is a highlight at the Three Choirs Festival alongside a new Ronald Corp piece & Vaughan Williams' Flos Campi - concert review
  • Itch rocks: science, adventure and Wagnerian parallels in the world premiere of Jonathan Dove's terrific new opera Itch at Opera Holland Park opera review
  • It is not just queer or other diversity in the cast or roles; we need to have opera that demands diversity in the first place: I chat to tenor Elgan Llyr Thomas - interview
  • Back into the film studio: Puccini's La Boheme at Opera Holland Park on a 1950s Italian film set - opera review
  • Forget Callas and Italian bel canto: Christophe Rousset & les Talens Lyriques reveal the distinctive drama of Spontini's La Vestale - record revew
  • Tony Cooper relishes Sofia Opera's brand-new Ring which has been an all-round exercise in good artistic management coupled with cooperative staff teamwork - opera review
  • Overwhelmingly intense electronic sound worlds from marginalised voices: Nonclassical's Disruptive Frequencies at Kings Place - concert review
  • Carmen in in the Quarry: Arnaud Bernard transforms Bizet's opera into film set in 1930s-era Spain on Oper im Steinbruch's spectacular stage - opera review
  • There are things to discover still: Benjamin Appl on exploring themes of temptation and seduction in his latest album, Forbidden Fruit -interview
  • An engaging and eclectic selection: Soar from Alastair Penman and Jonathan Pease - record review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month