The Philharmonic’s ambition to programme works from outside of traditional canons has brought some thoughtful and choice contributions to Manchester’s music scene in recent months. Upcoming concerts include a celebration of the works of American avant-garde composer George Antheil, and a performance featuring Gunther Schuller, Charles Ives and a new work by George Walker alongside Rhapsody in Blue and Antheil’s Symphony no. 6. Such programming decisions make the orchestra’s Bridgewater Hall season an attractive one: a mix of orchestral heavyweights, hidden musical gems and new music premières (and, crucially, second performances), in a collective push to test the boundaries of traditional repertoire choices. A similar attitude was taken to last night’s concert; more recognizable works such as Janáček’s Sinfonietta were programmed alongside two less less popular works, Berlioz’s Chasse royale and Saint-Saëns’s Rapsodie d’Auvergne, complemented by Saint-Saëns’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Smetana’s terrific overture to The Bartered Bride.

Louis Lortie
© Elias

Conductor Edward Gardner’s work with the National Youth Orchestra and with education projects in general has been highly commended, and one wonders whether he had a choice in setting the programme. What is especially pleasing to see is a programme intended to be accessible to younger listeners that offers something new and intriguing to seasoned audience members as well; some thoughtfully chosen programme notes helped to satisfy both the new and experienced in equal measure.

The Philharmonic opened with Smetana’s technical tour de force, Gardner taking the opening in an exuberant 1-in-a-bar. Some more dynamic light and shade would have been appreciated through the opening string runs, especially on the individual part entries; at times each section didn’t agree on the speed, not helped by a tempo that probably suited a 2-beat pattern. Once it stabilised however, this brought a very exciting opening, if not quite achieving the dynamic contrast to make this an outstanding read.

This was followed by two contrasting works by Saint-Saëns for piano and orchestra: his structurally-curious Fourth Piano Concerto and a piece that acted as pianist Louis Lortie’s encore, the virtuosic Rapsodie d’Auvergne. Saint-Saëns’s take on the traditional sonata form in the Concerto is skilled, structuring the piece in a manner akin to a traditional symphonic work. The quick changes in mood and style suited the flashy, characterful style of Lortie, and I look forward to his interpretation of Poulenc’s piano music with the BBC Philharmonic after this performance. However, it was his Rapsodie that the audience really enjoyed, a chance for Sortie to explore Saint-Saëns’s characteristic virtuosic piano writing together with a restrained, pastoral orchestral accompaniment.

After the interval came my highlight of the evening in music from Berlioz’s underappreciated opera Les Troyens. Whilst situating the trombones in the choir stalls directly above the orchestra looked slightly cumbersome for the players, the overall effect on the music was dazzling. The solo horn lines were spotless and appreciated by the orchestra and audience alike, and the unison trombone lines to complement them were nicely blended, the brass more than making up for a lack of chorus in the piece’s climax. The combination of tremendous soloists, atmospheric, foreboding timpani (three timpani players spread across the stage) and subtle woodwind contributions made for the evening’s highpoint.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta has long been characterized as an oddity in the symphonic repertoire, as an exuberant little symphony that occupies a popular (yet slightly eccentric) place alongside its vast, existential symphonic colleagues of contemporary years. Perhaps we should understand it, as Tom Service notes, as an afternote on the late 19th-century programmatic symphonies and tone poems of Berlioz and Liszt, a work inspired by and describing Janáček’s beloved Brno. However we think of the piece, it is a thrilling spectacle, especially with a line of trumpets, euphoniums and bass trumpets ready to unveil the opening fanfares. Unfortunately, the famous opening was marred by a couple of noticeable splits, tuning issues and a lack of communication along the long line of brass. Disappointing though that was, the rest of the piece was fantastic; excellent contributions came from the trombones and upper strings in the third movement, and the trumpets in the fourth, really marking the melodic cells that form the basis of the movement’s structure. Another shot at the fanfare material saw a much more cohesive response from the brass to Janáček’s glorious closing statements. The winner in this concert was probably not the playing – the rough edges and occasional moments of hesitation in the Janáček suggest a lack of rehearsal time with Gardner – but the chance to hear such a thoughtful and well-rounded programme (along with a fabulous soloist). Bravo to the programming team and long may it continue!