The second instalment in The Hallé Beethoven cycle was led by Principal Guest Conductor Marcus Stenz, and also featured the striking Nordic colours of Jean Sibelius and Magnus Lindberg.

Kolja Blacher © Priska Ketterer
Kolja Blacher
© Priska Ketterer

Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 was composed at a time of considerable personal upheaval, following recent throat cancer and subsequent abstinence from alcohol, and is a disparate prequel to the far more triumphant (and popular) fifth. The score remains unsettled, even in the abrupt minor key of the ending, and the brief dabbles with light (the fourth movement’s glockenspiel interjections, for example) repeatedly fail to illuminate. The darkness was created very effectively by the early brooding bass and wonderfully expressive cello and oboe solos, and the orchestra repeatedly showed an ability to drop its sound with a gentle abruptness. In the second movement a combination of crisp articulation and close attention to phrasing created a pleasing impression of gently lilting waves. Tightly controlled accents in the string section retained a firm grounding in the gloom of the broader musical line. This was seen again in the third movement, in which understated phrasing and restrained tone, even in the firm swells in the music, created a sense of withdrawal and passive commentary, hinting at the composer’s mental state of the time. The fourth movement toys with daylight, with the frequent nimble wind interruptions (notably in the horns) attempting to steer the music home, but being blocked by wide pizzicato and a tight, dour ending. Stenz’s imagining of the score was a fine insight into this underrated but important symphony, without which the composer’s widely celebrated later symphonies would have little meaning.

Continuing efforts to bring modern works to Manchester audiences alongside Beethoven symphonies, Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto, completed in 2006, opened the second half. It is scored for a Mozartian orchestra, but is in all other ways quite forward looking, though the ghost of Sibelius is frequently audible in Lindberg’s writing. The piece opens with a sustained, vibratoless shimmer in the string section, from which emerge early hints of motifs to follow. The virtuosic and capricious solo line flits from high intensity to superficial, almost trite, themes, combining under the excellent bow of Kolja Blacher to shape an intriguing drama. His playing was hugely expressive throughout, at times delicate and full in turn. The small orchestra supported and led well in equal measure, creating a sense of the restless dissatisfaction of Sibelius as various musical resolutions were suggested but denied. The third movement featured finely controlled intense focus, underpinned by the basses, before the late emergence of an almost major key, and hints at modal scales in the close. The performance was well received, and was an effective companion to the Sibelius symphony.

Like the Sibelius and Lindberg, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 was something of a shock to critics in early 19th century Vienna, tampering as he did with symphonic form (replacing the traditional minuet with a scherzo) and orchestration. The slow introduction was read by Stenz as rather more relaxed than by many other conductors, though maintaining clarity, making the introduction uncommonly congruous with the music to follow. The Allegro opened with great energy and sensitivity to the musical line, with fine attention paid to shaping of even the smallest phrases. The delicate articulation of the woodwind staccato passages was excellent, as were the many subtle crescendo-decrescendos in the string flourishes. The noisier, brassy passages throughout the symphony might have benefited from harder timpani sticks on the period drums, but the orchestral coordination was largely good. Stenz drew out a marvellously warm sound in the second movement, aided by fine horn playing, particularly through the triplet accompaniments. The scherzo and fourth movement had a confident strut in the sound, crisp and assured with further excellent control of lightly flitting themes and accompaniments, this time from strings and bassoons. The longer phrases were very well highlighted by Stenz, before the brass led the music to its rambunctious conclusion.