The baton for the opening concert of The Hallé's Thursday series for the 2019-19 season fell to Edward Gardner, an old friend of the orchestra from his time as Assistant Conductor some years ago. This brilliantly conceived programme, performed at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, gave a tantalising hint of what the partnership might achieve with a regular long-term relationship.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

Pairing Nietzsche with a liturgical text made for a fascinating programme in prefacing Janáček's utterly unique Glagolitic Mass of 1927 with Also Sprach Zarathustra, written thirty years before. Large-scale choral events have been the biggest successes of the Hallé's recent seasons, and this will probably prove to be no exception this year. Singing in Czech, the choir did well to keep their heads out of their scores despite the unfamiliar tongue, and the singing tonight brought huge drama to the text. With crisp diction, they threw their collective weight into some enormous fortissimo proclamations right from the enormous first cry of "Gospodi, pomiluj" in the Kyrie.

The four soloists' roles are distinctively unevenly written, with big parts for soprano and tenor but significantly less work assigned to the mezzo and bass. Sara Jakubiak took the soprano part with a passionate, almost operatic sense of drama. Her bright, vibrato-heavy sound shone in the Gloria and Agnus Dei, while mezzo-soprano Dame Felicity Palmer's sprinkling of contributions were soft and warm in the latter. Stuart Skelton bravely attacked the unsympathetic tenor writing with great bravura, managing to make himself heard even among the swirling fortissimo melees of the Gloria, and bass James Platt gave brief but richly coloured contributions in the Credo.

The orchestral writing provides ample opportunity for individual fireworks, but none more so than for the organist, who is granted an entire movement to himself. Darius Battiwalla, perched high above the choir, provided perfectly weighted accompaniment whilst playing among the orchestral texture but let rip a thrilling display of virtuosity in his solo movement, his broadly-spaced phrases playing out in a colourful array of registrations. Other highlights came from the brass section, whose collective legato early on was a sharp contrast from their jauntily festive whooping near the end, and some stirring timpani solos. At the emotional heart of the work, the vast Credo had some wonderfully pure high unison lines for viola and cello.

Strauss' Zarathustra gives similarly taxing solos to all corners of the stage, and Gardner did well to keep these and the individual character of the ten chapters framed in a very satisfyingly paced whole. Admirably conducting the complex score from memory, he steered the vast tone poem from the broad brush strokes of the Hinterweltlern (with a glorious sheen on the string and horn sound) to the dark, dissonant ending via some gutsily characterised waltzes in the Tanzlied. Though intonation momentarily lapsed in Of Science and ensemble wavered in the outset of the The Convalescent, the monumental climax of the latter chapter was a floor-shaking spectacle. Individual credit must go to principal trumpet and orchestra leader, who gave solos of complete assurance. After an attractively opulent waltz, another huge climax led the music into its cryptic last pages.

****1