Review: Hallé Orchestra at Warwick Arts Centre

This year marks 150 years since Hector Berlioz’s death in 1869. Sir Mark Elder paid tribute to the strong friendship between Berlioz and the Hallé Orchestra’s founder, Sir Charles Hallé. In recognition, the Hallé will perform Berlioz’s creative composition, The Damnation of Faust in Manchester in February. A full house at Warwick Arts was treated to Berlioz’s agony of unrequited love for the actress Harriet Smithson, his Symphony fantastique, Op. 14.

Four bassoons dominate the opening movement, with crisp intelligent playing, supported by excellent horns, the ever-enthusiastic Sir Mark Elder leading an orchestra with a gender balance seldom equalled by other UK based orchestras. Four of six double bass players are female, the percussion and trombone sections are female, and females dominate the flutes and the oboes. What a strong message this sends to other orchestras as to what can be achieved if there is a real commitment.

The five movements are the output of an eccentric, hugely imaginative composer; the second movement introduces two female harpists to accompany a gorgeous clarinet solo before the delicate pizzicato playing of second violins accompanies a cor anglais-oboe conversation. Blaring horns dominate the fourth movement before the delicate col legno playing by the first violins reintroduces those wonderful bassoons in the fifth movement. A remarkable performance, full of the instrumentation colouring Berlioz demanded.

This excitement was preceded by Stephen Hough’s supremely confident playing of Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No 5 in F major. Delightfully lyrical, expressive, expansive at times and providing evidence of erotica, Hough clearly enjoyed sharing his admiration of this composer, with a receptive audience making his playing even better! For his encore he surprised this enthusiastic audience with Eric Coates’, By the Sleeping Lagoon, more familiarly heard as the music accompanying the shipping forecast!