HALLE ORCHESTRA Bridgewater Hall
THIS concert was like an oasis in the vast expanse of Christmas tweeness – some serious music, enjoyable nonetheless, but with not a sleigh bell in sight.
It was also one of the first programmes in the Hallé series to live up fully to its in-and-out theme of Fate: it could hardly fail to, with a rare piece by Tchaikovsky called Fatum as the opener.
This was conducted by Harish Shankar, the Royal Northern College of Music’s present junior fellow in conducting, and he made a very impressive Hallé debut indeed. There was power and intensity in the opening and close, refinement and beauty in the more lyrical episodes, and electricity in tone and phrasing as the music grew to its climaxes.
In truth it’s more like a ballet score without a ballet than a symphonic movement, but that gave scope for tension, drama and energy, and Harish Shankar’s style, economic on gesture but effective, gives an orchestra what it needs and nothing else.
Sir Mark Elder completed the Fate connection with Rachmaninov’s third symphony, in which the Hallé were as responsive to him as they had been earlier. It has a glorious first movement melody that sticks in your head, and in this account they made it soar and glide and indeed gain considerable urgency, and the emotional peaks and contrasts were highlighjted with a sure hand.
There’s a struggle between pessimism and optimism in both the second and third movements of this symphony, handled here with assurance and awareness of ambiguity: the march in mid slow movement had a blend of the demonic and the determined, and the Grim Reaper made his appearance with a death rattle in the finale, despite its exciting ending.
Between those two works we had a burst of sunshine, as Stephen Hough played the solo in Beethoven’s first piano concerto, with Sir Mark at the helm. It was everything you would expect a Hough performance to be – fluency and ice-cool clarity coupled with dynamic contrast, passion and beauty. Flamboyancy is not Stephen Hough’s style, but his sheer intelligence made the music more beautiful and thrilling than ever.