thu 18/07/2024

St Ludmila, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

St Ludmila, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

St Ludmila, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Mancunian orchestra celebrates Dvořák with a revived oratorio, and more

St Ludmila in a Czech fresco

The Victorians liked their oratorios long and loud (most of the time), and when Dvořák wrote St Ludmila for the Leeds Festival of 1886 he got the style exactly right. Sir Mark Elder brought his and the Hallé’s celebration of Dvořák to a thunderous close with a performance which deftly abbreviated the score and also unveiled a new English version derived from a working translation of the Czech text by David Pountney.

The story is about the conversion of the Bohemian Princess Ludmila to Christianity and her role in the subsequent conversion of Prince Bořivoj and, naturally, the whole nation. Although Hallé history does include a previous St Ludmila, that was just after the Leeds premiere, so it has taken 130 years to get to a second, and Elder was determined to reveal its virtues to today’s listeners. Was he right?

The piece was made for and in the north of England choral tradition, and the Hallé Choir (trained by Matthew Hamilton) made a showpiece of it, with clarity throughout and power when needed. The orchestral writing is never less than imaginative, and the orchestra gave that its splendour. Its first listeners heard echoes of Handel and Bach in it, which tells us more about how Handel and Bach were performed in those days than anything else, but the fugal outbursts and block-solid harmonies were thrilling, Elder’s operatic instincts to the fore in the climactic final pages.

Christine RiceBut there is more to the work than that. It opens with a liquid orchestral texture like a precursor of Rusalka , includes a soloists’ trio (portraying Christian conversion) to a walking bass like that of Mendelssohn’s pilgrims in the "Italian" Symphony, and has a hunting chorus akin to a symphonic scherzo. It also provides its soloists with great opportunities. Emma Bell, in the soprano role of Ludmila, had both a pretty barcarolle (Sullivan not far away for a few moments) and a dramatic aria in Part One, and exploited their potential. Christine Rice (pictured right by Christine Taylor) met the challenge of 19th century contralto writing in fine style, and brought distinction to the lovely and richly orchestrated triple-time hymn that dominates Part Three.

She shared that with bass James Creswell, whose saintly Ivan was betimes mellow and stentorian; and there were two tenors: Stuart Jackson as the Farmer, and Nicky Spence as Bořivoj. Each gave character and finesse to their part. It was an education, and an experience, to hear St Ludmila rediscovered. As its first Manchester Guardian reviewer said, it has genius in it but attention is not held throughout. He was spot on.

Although St Ludmila was the culmination of the Hallé’s 17-day-spread Dvořák festival, there were notable performances before it. Its collective title was "Nature, Life and Love" – names Dvořák gave to his trilogy of overtures of 1891-2 (the middle one is Carnival: the other two are In Nature and Othello ). It was illuminating to hear them as one work, as they share a pentatonic "motto" theme, briefly audible in Carnival but established in the first and tragically transformed in Othello.

Mark ElderSir Mark (pictured left) performed the cycle in the first concert, bringing the last to a narrative climax, and Carnival itself received an exuberant performance. The best of that evening, though, was Francesco Piemontesi’s playing of the Dvořák piano concerto, making light of the technical issues, introducing the themes engagingly and making the writing sound both sparky and sparkly.

There were three programmes containing the cello concerto, with soloist Gary Hoffman, preceded by a Slavonic Dance in each case and followed by a symphony – 7, 8 and 9, respectively. Hoffman is a strong and eloquent player, but the concerto’s effect was at least as much down to the orchestra and Elder’s contribution as to his, well prepared and realizing the mellow sounds of Dvořák’s orchestration skilfully.

Sir Mark’s music appreciation class on The Golden Spinning Wheel – a tone poem based on a folk tale with aspects of Cinderella, Lemminkainen and Das Klagende Lied all rolled into one – came complete with excerpts from another late Dvořák tone poem, The Wild Dove. It was amusingly done and acutely observed, and demonstrated the extent to which the composer was using operatic techniques, even in wordless musical story-telling, by this point in his career.

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