The biennial Manchester International Festival has in recent years brought several memorable events to the city’s Bridgewater Hall, including a rare performance by Martha Argerich with Manchester Camerata and The Hallé’s Die Walküre. Tonight’s event placed a roaringly bold account of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony within the slightly curious context of a curtailed concert following a first half which consisted simply of an elongated pre-concert talk.

Jonathon Heyward
© Jeremy Ayres Fischer

It was a pity that Mark Elder had to pull out of the concert a few days beforehand due to a troublesome neck injury. He must have enjoyed watching his young assistant, Jonathon Heyward, though, taking his orchestra through the symphony with such passion and measured assurance. From the outset, the sound was bright and relentlessly busy, with a sense of latent energy conveyed even in the symphony’s stiller moments. Tempi were generally a notch quicker and climaxes more brassily raw than Elder’s reading with the same orchestra six years ago, though as on that occasion the ten supplementary brass players were stationed above the orchestra in the choir stalls. After a bustling opening scene, the march sequence started at a daringly brisk pace. By the time all three side drummers were into their stride, with bass trombones rasping and trumpets blaring, the relentless noise was almost unbearably monstrous. There were woodwind solos of immensely detailed character throughout the symphony, but memorably from bassoon in the post-march hush. It’s hard to imagine the movement played more convincingly.

The second movement was more restrained, imagined as a tight-lipped, dream-like episode with a central, grotesque ballet passage. The sense of tightly-wound tension never slipped, even in the soft-tread of the movement’s last pages. A transient sense of serenity in the third movement was quickly dispelled by a rollicking return for brass and percussion, but the tragedy of the music was fully realised in the ensuing paragraphs, spacious and unhurried in unison string lines of unfailingly pure sound.

The finale returned to the high drama of the first movement, before a long and meticulously shaped climb to the coda. Heyward’s control in pacing this and giving the movement (and symphony) such clear shape was remarkable, and so by the time the extra brass had rejoined the fray at full throttle for the triumphant return of C major, their enormous sound felt entirely justified. One man in the stalls leapt immediately to his feet with a gruff shout of “F-ing yes!” as the last chord died away. It was hard to disagree with him.

What of the first half? Manchester International Festival is set to move in 2022 to The Factory, a purpose-built new arts complex on the site of the old Granada Studios, and so tonight was to be the first major announcement regarding a new collaboration to mark the occasion. The first half of the evening, therefore, consisted of a panel discussion between Mark Elder and Dutch director Johan Simons, with brief contributions from the Festival’s director and BBC Radio 3’s Elizabeth Alker. The new Elder/Simons production sounds exciting, essentially consisting of a performance of Shostakovich’s epic Fourth Symphony followed by an actor-led deconstruction of the symphony interspersed with extracts from Vasily Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate. “I’m not even sure we should call it a performance, but maybe an event”, says Elder – “Bring a packed lunch!”. This discussion was all very well and interesting, but did it really justify half a concert, in place of some more music, rather than a pre-concert talk? Probably not. Tonight’s was a very different audience compared to usual Hallé crowds, and surely more could have been done to retain them rather than make them sit through a lengthy and abstract discussion of an event three years in the future. Hopefully such a strong account of the Leningrad will entice them back.