Cristian Mandeal returned to the Hallé to direct an intelligent performance of Rachmaninov’s ever popular second symphony, with Sofya Gulyak playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major. Mandeal himself is a familiar face in Manchester, having been Principal Guest Conductor of the Hallé from 2005 to 2010. A particular feature of his long career has been his championing of the works of fellow Romanian George Enescu. Tonight he made a strong case for the loveable Romanian Rhapsody no. 1, a potpourri of folk tunes of not-necessarily-Romanian origin. Always an entertaining conductor to watch, Mandeal was at his most animated here, giving direction with tremendous elegance and energy. He would walk and lunge his way around his large rostrum to divert his attentions to various sections, always with a graceful demeanour which conveyed a deep affection for the music. This came through in the playing: from lovingly attended woodwind solos at the beginning to the furious energy which close the piece, this was a joy to hear.

Pianist Sofya Gulyak was the 2009 winner of the Leeds Piano Competition, and since then has enjoyed a close relationship with the Hallé. Tonight she gave the third Prokofiev concerto with a strong sense of the music’s overriding shape, matching subtlety in accompaniment with exuberance in the more bravura passages, alongside obvious technical mastery of the concerto. There was an occasional tendency in the first two movements towards the solo line being overpowered in the passages where the piano accompanies tutti orchestral scoring, despite the string sections each being reduced by a desk. There was a great deal to admire, though, and the mischief of the end of the first movement left a definite smile in the hall.

After the high jinks of the Allegro, welcome relief was found in the wide, serene spaciousness of the second movement. Gulyak’s lightness of touch gave pleasing lucidity to the nocturne variation, though the textures became a little thick in the fifth variation. In the finale, the strings again found the same impressive purity of tone which had been evident early in the second movement. This gave way to a very tight and well controlled attack in the quicker passages, culminating in a powerful close.

An altogether more characteristically Hallé string sound was in evidence in Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor. The warmth and roundedness of tone gave the whole symphony an outstanding foundation for its richly romantic character to be built from. For the most part, Mandeal was careful not to overindulge, taking his time to brew the intensity of the first movement and reigning in any threat of romantic excess in the slow movement.

In the opening movement, the intensity – when it came – was all the greater for its sparing application, culminating in the entry of the cymbals after an almighty crescendo and an upbeat from Mandeal in which he cleared the podium altogether. He subsequently gave great care to the reappearance of the second theme, played beautifully wistfully. The subsequent scherzo was quite a departure, charging along with an excellent drive from the bustling strings. An impressive clarity was maintained, which paid dividends in revealing close details of the quaver figures which pass through the strings.

Clarinettist Lynsey Marsh played outstandingly well in the slow movement, finding a soft and sweet sound which set the tone for the remainder of the movement. The phrase shaping and balancing between winds and strings were well coordinated by Mandeal, who took his time in reaching a stately, dignified climax without pouring out emotion excessively. It was nonetheless deeply moving, and made a strong case for this approach.

The same sense of long-term vision was evident in the finale, where the final minutes were given proper significance by checking some of the earlier climaxes. The livelier music was perhaps not quite as exuberantly airborne as it might have been – perhaps the slow movement was still in Mandeal’s mind – but the long, slow build up to the end was most rewarding. He emerged from the broader tempo to the final piu mosso a few bars earlier than marked in the score, before charging to a joyous conclusion. It was a fine way to close a thoughtful and intelligent performance of a work sometimes written off for romantic over-indulgence.