Halle premieres Huw Watkins’ Symphony No. 2

This was the first time (or was it the second?) I’ve heard The Hallé on their home turf in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. It is a phenomenal band. The strings are powerful, responsive and dynamic. The woodwind ensemble is not like anything I have heard in the UK in recent years. Crystal clear articulation, a beautiful melding of timbres throughout, and the sweetest, clearest, most delectable of flute sounds crowning the lot.

Bridgewater throughout does have a 90s cruise liner feel about it, but the auditorium acoustic is generous, constructing a cavernous sound that is both distant and intimate at the same time. I hear richness in the ensemble and detail in the individual instrumentation. The basses and cellos are cushioned making any plucked note en masse feel like a pebble falling into deep water. The rest of the strings, supported by wooden surfaces all around them, create an impressive range of colours and textures, deftly targetting their energies in short collective bursts whenever the need arises.

When The Hallé plays the Huw Watkins Symphony No. 2 the orchestra is almost double in size. Lots of lower brass, percussion, harp and extra strings. These extra forces are carefully outlined by the composer. At twenty minutes, It is a compact work packed full of ravishing textures and various other aural tricks demonstrating why Huw Watkins is such a sought-after composer. Watkins’ calling card is simple: he writes new music you want to listen to; he knows what the audience wants even if it does not.

In the opening sequence of the first movement, two flutes play together but ever so slightly out of phase creating an unsettling echo effect with an eery edge that plays to the Hall’s acoustic. As a new dawn dawns at the beginning of the second movement, consoling strings are juxtaposed with expectant woodwind chords. A beautiful dance-like pattern played by clarinet, oboe, and flute. This idea is later expanded to include the rest of the wind and the brass. And towards the end, one octave leap in a solo horn ramps up the anticipation for the concluding third movement.

Augustin Hadelich, Sir Mark Elder and The Hallé at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Later in the programme, the sight of the comparatively cut-down orchestra for the Brahms Violin Concerto is surprising. The strings still pack a punch with precision, robustness, and dynamism. The end of the radiant wind chorale at the beginning of the first movement was matched by dry whispering strings – entirely different textures but perfectly paired.

Soloist Augustin Hadelich is a self-assured performer, playing with a beautifully isolated movement, his body drawing different lines independent from the sound he is creating on the violin.

A question arises for me mid-performance about the extent to which this physicality is contributing to my listening experience. When I close my eyes and listen, I feel like I am missing out on sound. When I see him play – hinged from the waist, sometimes fleet of foot, sometimes reaching seemingly ‘beyond’ the instrument – I feel like I am hearing all of the sound. There is a strength that emanates from his core that plays a key role in all of this, helping him shift from moments of intense passion to exquisite delicate tenderness. The pianissimos are fragile, but the gaps in between the notes are distinct. Yet throughout, Hadelich isn’t overly demonstrative. It doesn’t feel like we’re seeing much of him in that the performance isn’t about him. In this way he has remarkable presence. As an audience member I feel safe in his hands and this in itself helps me feel more connected to what’s going on. I find all of this detail mesmerising in the moment.

Among all of this detail, one thing has gone overlooked. That of conductor Mark Elder. When he speaks as he did before the Watkins premiere, his unassuming tone is so low-key as to be humbling. It is almost as though he is saying ‘don’t look at me, look at them’. His movements are contained. Even at his most animated or demonstrative, he doesn’t distract. This is direction targeted at the players rather than the audience, a manifestion of character over personality.

Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra play Verdi, Wagner and Strauss with Sir Mark Elder

The first of today’s excursions takes me to the Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra to see their symphony orchestra play music by Verdi, Wagner and Strauss. Avuncular Sir Mark Elder conducts.

It’s a demanding programme right from the start. High whispering strings open the Verdi’s Prelude to Aida – a punishing way to begin a concert, particularly when unlike an operatic performance, the players are clearly visible on stage. And to make matters even worse, there is someone like me three rows from the front keeping a beady eye on proceedings.

Proximity to the stage makes the listening experience all the more intense and immediate. And despite the size of the orchestra all seemingly crammed onto stage, when the strings in particular get to a loud sequence then the richness of their sound is made clear. The Dukes Hall is surprisingly accommodating, meaning really tumultuous sections aren’t ear-splitting. Rather, the responsiveness of the acoustic helps emphasise the considerable dynamic range these young players can yield.

Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde does not linger too much. Short expressive phrases open up and contract in intensity swiftly and promptly. There is an easy to and fro between first and second violins – splitting up the sections helps surface the emotional interaction in the music and lifts what I’ve previously heard as music that solely depends on intensity. In this reading of the Liebestod (from the end of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) there felt like constant motion as though we heading in exorably towards a conclusion, a reflection of how collectively the string players understood exactly what they were playing. Looks and smiles exchanged between players serve to reinforce this.

There was an unexpected uneasiness at the beginning of Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung as though not everyone was feeling as at ease with the opening of the work. But then, the opening of Strauss’ 1888 tone poem is also very demanding, taking no prisoners and demanding spot on articulation and ensemble playing from the wind and brass in particular. Things had definitely settled in by the time the violin solo from Leader Izzy Howard (one of two Symphony Orchestra players who are participating in the London Symphony Orchestra Strings Experience cohort 2022/23).

At full throttle the strings produced a formidable sound with a Herculean effort. The string sequence (illustrated in this recording at 11’26”) was s-p-e-c-t-a-c-u-l-a-r like a sudden electrical charge. The concluding chords showed wind and brass section at some of their finest in the performance, the concluding chords were exquisitely placed across the band.

I was particularly impressed with the consistency of playing in the first violins throughout. Sometimes its easy to distinguish the stronger players in the section by comparing the amount of bow used from one player to another. Here there was little different from the front or back. Warm applause too to the second violins who had their moment in the sun sat across from the firsts, playing with evident expression throughout – an engaging watch.