Manchester: Musical Mecca

The CD I wrote about in the last article is valuable for its unusual programme but is notable too for the orchestra that plays it, the BBC Philharmonic. In the war years its earlier manifestation -the BBC Northern Orchestra – shared some of its players with the Halle orchestra, until John Barbirolli (see 31/01/06) came on the scene and, losing some of his players permanently to the BBC, built up the new and impressive Halle Orchestra.

Mark Elder has been the conductor of the Halle since 2000, and has brought it to a new eminence in the British musical scene. The collaboration is magical although I have been able to see it in action only once. The orchestra has its own CD label and I have recently bought their latest in what until now has largely been performances of English music, of which Elder is a great advocate. It’s a disc devoted to the music of Debussy, who until now has not featured in these blogs. He was very much a man of his time (1862-1918), part of the cultural life of Bohemian Paris, friend of Manuel de Falla, and an innovator of a new musical style where dramatic flourishes are balanced against understatement and inference.

The first work on this new disc is devoted to his symphonic sketches, La Mer, in a performance of precision, characterised, as a critic wrote last week, by a ‘slow-burning intensity which pulls everything into sharp focus in the final movement.’ Much of the compositions of the early years of the last century were impressionistic, sometimes with a hidden structure but often – for me – meandering, leading to nowhere. Not so Debussy, particularly true of his orchestral music.

The other work on the disc is of twelve of his piano preludes orchestrated by the English composer and onetime collaborator of Benjamin Britten, Colin Matthews. I have all of Debussy’s piano music on disc and it has been so interesting to compare the originals with this new version.

Matthews claims that he hasn’t orchestrated in a mock-Debusssy style, but I seem to detect a strongly English pastoral influence typical of that period, in these very delightful realisations. An excellent disc and I recommend it.

Lucky Manchester, to have two such superb orchestras and with the new Bridgwater Hall to perform in. A good argument for living in the North!