With the Hallé Orchestra in Fauré’s Ballade

2003-02-06 / The Guardian / David Vickers

FAURÉ Ballade for Piano and Orchestra

The Hallé’s guest conductor, Cristian Mandeal, suggests that his Romanian compatriot George Enescu “belongs among the great creative artists of the 20th century”. Judging from the Hallé’s captivating performance of Enescu’s Suite No 1, Op 9, such a brave opinion seems spot on. Mandeal proved that Enescu has a distinctive voice, possessing vitality and expressing seductive musical ideas.

The long opening Prelude was a rhapsodic introduction performed exclusively by unison violins, violas and cellos, marvellously rich and flexible. A gorgeous Menuet followed, with Enescu’s French influences evident in the complex delicacy of orchestration, conjuring up an impression of what Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia might have sounded like if Debussy had arranged it. Its sensuous climax had a cinematic luminosity and the brief Interlude before it was radiant and heart-warming.

The Finale’s opening was more aggressive, a blazing exposition of the mood suggested in the unison opening of the Suite, yet charismatically switching to blissfully optimistic music bursting with vitality. No doubt the excellence of the Hallé and the fervour of Mandeal assisted matters, but it seems clear that Enescu’s time in the limelight is long overdue.

Enescu’s teacher, Fauré, was represented by his mellifluous Ballade for piano and orchestra. Allegedly, Fauré’s inventive piano writing was too difficult even for his mentor Liszt to play, but Mandeal and soloist Angela Hewitt demonstrated that it is infinitely more than a virtuoso piece. Hewitt’s playing was breathtaking, with Fauré’s lovely score exposed in all its yearning, serenity and sublime naturalness. Hewitt also performed Ravel’s Sonatine for solo piano, making Ravel’s fiendishly difficult music smooth, sustained and sparkling, despite its introspection. Hewitt suggests that “Ravel didn’t want it to sound commonplace”, and in her hands it certainly did not.

Mandeal directed a thrilling performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring without a score. The result was noisy and the Hallé driven at full throttle, but Mandeal encouraged a jazzy flow rather than nervous jerkiness despite some fast tempos. The Hallé was sweet and lyrical in the transitory moments that required it, but, otherwise, Stravinsky’s infamous score was given optimal fearsomeness, its elements of grotesque hedonism and articulate garishness brilliantly meshed all the way to its relentless, deathly climax.