Making his home debut with the Hallé in this string of Opus series concerts, the great Italian opera conductor Carlo Rizzi brought his great sense of operatic structure and drama to an intriguing and indulgently romantic evening of Respighi, Rossini and Rachmaninov.

Carlo Rizzi © Tessa Traeger
Carlo Rizzi
© Tessa Traeger
At the top of the programme was Respighi's tone poem Fountains of Rome, the first of his three Roman Festivals. Its unbroken four-movement structure ebbed and flowed into a coherent and aesthetically delightful whole in Rizzi's hands. The whole work was approached with an uncommon lightness of texture for this orchestra, the strings playing with more glossy sheen than usual and the woodwinds sparkling in enchanting solo dialogues between principal oboe and flute. Idiosyncratic palettes of colour, born from the bell-like sounds of piano, celesta, glockenspiel and accented horns, made the fountain imagery plain to hear. The final scene, of sunset at the Villa Medici fountain, was gloriously autumnal in its slow tread and attractive solo violin line.

Placing Rossini's well loved William Tell overture second on the programme was a shrewd move in limiting its perception as an over-played 'classical-lite' mobile phone ringtone and instead afforded it the attention it deserves when properly cared for by the right conductor. Rizzi's brisk tempi did not dwell on any of the early scenes in overly sentimental fashion, but rather offered an opera overture in the traditional sense of hinting at the drama to come. It was an uncommon pleasure to hear the opening dawn scene hot on the heels of a musical sunset, and the cello section, led by Nicholas Trygstad, played with a sublimely clean and yet rich tone. After a brisk storm and a pastorale which was full of air in the spaces between cor anglais and flute solos, the gallop charged onwards with a relentless and daringly quick vigour. 

Turning towards Russia for the main substance of the programme, the same rigorous sense of long-arching drama which had brought sense to the first half was applied to Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. It was treated as a long, slow burner, rising from the darkness of first movement via the clinical precision of the second and tasteful yearning of the third to a thrillingly passionate close.

The opening movement immediately saw a darker hue in the colour of the string playing, the long lines sweeping over each other with rich vibrato and care for phrase endings. Rizzi pushed the darkness of the music to such an extent that the last, slower appearance of the major-key second theme was an enormous relief to reach. Any sense of redemption was swiftly set aside in the Scherzo, which, while not being particularly wild, was utterly meticulous in attention to crisp details even at the vivacious tempo set by the conductor. There were some thrilling moments, most memorably in the breathless accelerando back to the opening theme after the middle section.

The famous Adagio managed to steer well clear of excessive indulgence wile making a steady, perfectly judged ascent, constantly aspiring upwards towards a climax capped by luxuriously full-bodied horn playing. It was left to the finale, then, to steer the music to a proper resolution of the darkness set up earlier in the symphony. Once again driven at a ferociously brisk pulse which the strings did admirably well to get their fingers around, the music was perfectly weighted to arrive at the coda ready for an emphatic finish, here provided by a triumphant peroration from brass and timpani.

It was a pity that Manchester couldn't rustle up a bigger audience for this most popular of programmes – perhaps the threats of catastrophic blizzards and a football derby could be blamed – but this was an evening of thrilling romanticism.

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