On 2 May Kahchun Wong conducted both the orchestral and choral versions of Malcolm Arnold’s dramatic overture Peterloo with the Hallé Orchestra and Choir. The choral version of Arnold’s 1967 work, with words by Tim Rice, was arranged by Ben Parry and first performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 2014 by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. At Bridgewater Hall the two versions bookended a performance of the Fauré Requiem and was Wong’s first time performing with the Hallé Choir.

Commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Trades Union Congress’ first meeting, Arnold draws on his pictorial ingenuity as a composer for film in the 9 ½-minute work’s vivid depiction of events. Arnold’s overture depicts the bloody events of the 1819 Peterloo massacre, when cavalry charged a peaceful crowd of 80,000 who had gathered to hear Henry Hunt speak on electoral reform. The soldiers killed eleven and wounded over four hundred in the chaos.

It opens with a noble melody for unison strings, then subsumed by a martial tattoo in the percussion that seems to emerge from the distance, à la Charles Ives. An explosively violent section in 6/8 ensues, describing the galloping horses and panic among the crowd, with shades of Shostakovich. A desolate lament follows, before a triumphant reappearance of the opening theme as a brass chorale – “in the firm belief”, Arnold noted, “that all those who have suffered and died in the cause of unity amongst mankind, will not have died so in vain.”

Tim Rice’s text for the choral version drew its initial inspiration from Percy Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, whose cry of outrage was written in response to the massacre. Rice’s text also invokes other violent and shameful episodes from British history – the 1190 massacre of York’s Jewish community and the brutality of Passchendaele during the First World War – to mark the conflict between patriotism and library, and the hope and failure of ideals. See the vocal score here.

Peterloo has proven one of Arnold’s most enduring works, receiving over three hundred and fifty performances internationally in both its original orchestration and versions for wind and brass bands. Arnold himself recorded the work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

It’s a piece that itself gives a hearing to each of the orchestral “choirs” in turn…Wong loved the colour and drama of the score and its big finish…With the choir added the second time round, it was even more splendid

The Arts Desk (Robert Beale) 3 May 2024