The Hallé Orchestra launched its new season last week in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, with a rich programme featuring works by two late Romantic masters. They played Elgar’s Enigma Variations as well as one would expect of a band that enjoys an unparalleled relationship with that composer, and they performed Death and Transfiguration, one of Richard Strauss’s early masterpieces, with no less colour. In fact it could be said that, under Mark Elder, whose music directorship is entering its sixth year, the Hallé has won its colours back.
When he succeeded Kent Nagano in 2000, Elder said, in a phrase that is damning for being so understated, that he found a group of players who were ‘competent, but not involved’. That is how the audiences felt, too. Despite leaving its old home, the famous but antiquated Free Trade Hall in 1996, for the liberating pleasures of the superb Bridgewater acoustic, the Hallé sounded like an orchestra whose glory days remained in the memories of those who recalled the 30-year stewardship of the man whose name will forever be associated with Manchester: Sir John Barbirolli.
The country’s oldest orchestra did not handle the Barbirolli succession adroitly. After JB’s death in 1970, the Scot, James Loughran, became chief conductor. The Eighties belonged to Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a granite-jawed Polish-American, who felt comfortable with Bruckner but often appeared as though the business of music-making was an intolerable burden. Then came another hyphenated American, the Japanese-Californian, Kent Nagano, who failed to establish any sort of relationship with either the players or the audience. It didn’t help that the atmosphere was fouled by severe financial problems that almost crippled the orchestra.
Now, on a surer footing, and with youthful players — more than 40 of them women — responding willingly to Elder’s direction, the Hallé sounds like an orchestra of which Manchester can again be proud.