A distinctly Nordic twist was on display on Thursday with The Hallé delivering a marvellously executed programme of established favourites. Beethoven’s grandiose overture The Creatures of Prometheus started the ball rolling in vigorous fashion – a brisk tempo chosen by Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä. Slender, lithe and consistently precise in his directions, it always felt as though he was in firm control. After the opening scene was set deliberately and purposefully, with particular care afforded to woodwind voices, no time was wasted in diving straight into the motoric string-propelled second theme. Muscular accents were delivered with relish and the entire orchestra appeared to be greatly enjoying the ride. After five rousing minutes, we arrived at a definitive reassuring blast of C major.

Víkingur Ólafsson
© Ari Magg

The hugely impressive Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson then joined the orchestra to deliver a sure-footed and ebullient account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. As was customary in such conceptions of the time, the orchestra was tasked with exhibiting a relatively lengthy opening tutti before the pianist could enter. When Ólafsson did so, his tone was instantly authoritative and clear but sufficiently blended with The Hallé so as to ensure an ideal balance. His great technical skill effectively meant that challenging passagework presented no great obstacles – but it must also be noted that this is a musician with a great depth of feeling as evidenced by his exquisite delicacy in the remarkably beautiful slow second movement and his near-telepathic connection with the conductor.

Every pianist has their own method of execution for the opening passage of the third movement which, in Ólafsson’s hands, sounded a little hurried, as though the notes were tripping over themselves a little; however, within the context of this performance, it somehow worked. The need for dynamism in this driven, vigorous finale was clearly understood by Mäkelä and the music energetically drove forward in truly enjoyable fashion towards the closing moments. Rapturously received, the persistent applause resulted in an unexpectedly poignant and emotive elegy given for a fellow musician back home who had passed away the previous night. The subsequent account from August Stradal's transcription of a little-known Bach work was truly wistful and stood as further evidence of this highly talented man’s prowess.

From the era of one tyrannical figure (Napoleon) to another (Stalin), we were treated to an outstanding performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The pressure under which the composer wrote this work – not to mention the constant fear for his life – is well documented but there is something special to be felt during a live performance. You could somehow feel the whole kaleidoscope of emotions which one might associate with the age which Shostakovich was living through. 

This was an excellent interpretation, with solo passages faultlessly delivered, always with genuine emotional feeling, the dynamics unashamedly unrestrained. The gruff Russian dance theme propelling the second movement, the agony of the tortured third movement, the brief surge of hope and excitement at the beginning of the fourth were all present and correct in their full glory. Mäkelä knew exactly how to build from slow and sinister, brooding and ponderous into a veritable firecracker of a finale, crashing cymbals and timpani utilised to magnificent effect.

Shostakovich was playing a remarkably dangerous game here; one which offered him no option to determine between what would be interpreted as right nor wrong – was this a journey of enlightenment of a reformed comrade or was it actually a cleverly disguised rebuke to the Politburo? Ultimately the listener must decide…. Hats off, meanwhile, to The Hallé and their outstanding Nordic guests.