Review: Superb ending to Sheffield City Hall classical music season

Halle Orchestra, Sheffield City Hall

Friday, 7th June 2019, 12:11 am
Updated Monday, 10th June 2019, 11:15 am
Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor

This may have been the last performance of the Sheffield International Concert Season but there could have been no better way of ushering in the summer break than with this superb performance of Mahler's First Symphony.

The piece is like the extended soundtrack to a nature documentary - trees and plants slowly unclenching, birds singing, peasants dancing, breezes blowing, thunder cracking, even croaking toads - but written years before television was invented.

Similar things have been done before, of course, from Vivaldi's Four Seasons to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, but never on this scale or with such breadth and detail.

Mahler makes use of everything from songs to nursery music, military bands to funeral marches, repeating and varying his ideas and tossing them from player to player at will.

Here it was all exquisitely realised by the Halle, with Hungarian conductor Gergely Madaras in full control of the dynamic and dramatic range of the piece, from the almost inaudible strings of the opening section to the thunderous fanfares of brass and woodwind at the end.

It was quite a contrast to the other main course on the menu, Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, with young British virtuoso Benjamin Grosvenor as the soloist.

When Beethoven wrote it he was yet to develop his mature barnstorming approach to composition, and this was a rather restrained affair, a pleasant and elegant conversation between soloist and band, which followed their warm-up piece, a Mozart overture..

The programme for the next International Concert Season, which starts in September, is now available.

Review: Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, City Hall

It is a sign of the regard in which the Philharmonic Chorus is held that they are invited to contribute to the first performances of ambitious new works like Philip Wilby's oratorio for organ, brass band and massed voices, The Holy Face.

It shares some of its Biblical text with Handel's Messiah, so comparisons are hard to avoid. Handel's approach is more varied, Wilby's (in this version) brassier.

That is because the Phil shared the stage with familiar partners, the Black Dyke Band, as well as the Halifax Choral Society, by whom the piece was commissioned.

Getting the balance right was therefore important, but the choirs, under conductor Darius Battiwalla, made their generally delicate contributions with perfect clarity, and were never overpowered by instrumentalists who played their part with admirable restraint.

They and the composer, who was in the audience, rightly received warm applause.

It was another contemporary British composer, Paul Mealor (best known for the Military Wives' Wherever You Are), who provided the afternoon's other main work, Paradise.

This was another composition for band and choir set to a Biblical text and it, too, worked well.

The choir book-ended the piece with the sort of peaceful, ethereal  sounds you would hope to find in Paradise, while the band was let loose in the central section with a less reverent outburst of jazz, which some of us would also welcome should we ever get there.

The programme began with Wilby's Cinema, a new work for brass band and organ, with Battiwalla now on the keyboard, while the band was conducted by Nicholas Childs.

It was apparently inspired by the early days of the cinema, although that was rarely obvious, and neither is organ and brass band a particularly felicitous combination.

Philip Andrews