One of the pitfalls of programming concerts with national themes is that it assumes a shared national character. In fact, the three composers featured in this evening’s concert all had uneasy relationship with their country of origin: Tchaikovsky in his rejection of the nationalist composers of The Five; Rachmaninov in his self-imposed political exile; and Stravinsky’s longstanding residency in Paris and America.

Lahav Shani © Marco Borggreve
Lahav Shani
© Marco Borggreve

And yet, the late omission of Sibelius’ stormy tone poem En Saga, in favour of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy-Overture, saw the Hallé’s programme take a distinctly Russian theme, completed by former Leeds Piano Competition winner (and Russian) pianist Sofya Gulak as soloist.

At the helm was Lahav Shani, a young conductor with a burgeoning reputation, having been appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and Chief Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic from 2018/2019. With high profile stand-ins at the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic under his belt at the age of 27, he joins a sizeable list of young conductors to appear with Manchester orchestras in recent months.

Shani conducted without any scores, a move that worked well in the evening’s highlight, Stravinsky’s 1945 suite from The Firebird, but less well in music which requires less punctuation, namely the Tchaikovsky overture, in which only some of Shani’s striking gesture was transmitted musically.

Individual sections certainly sparkled through Tchaikovsky’s famed 1880 version of the overture. The double basses' piano playing gave a lush yet subtle underlay, and the whole ensemble’s unison syncopated lines were played with enough assurance and poise to make them seem effortless. However, the piece took its time to settle. The opening was stunningly quiet, but slower than usual, and the whole was marked with moments of slight hesitancy; a small break in proceedings before the famous searing string melody reduced its impact. The final wind chorale too was exquisitely quiet, if occasionally not together at the end of sustained notes.

Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is a work even more recognizable than Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, due to its association with the iconic Brief Encounter soundtrack. Again, the piece took a while to gel and to settle; the ensemble needed to have the same approach to rubato through the sombre C minor theme as the soloist, who at times was overtaken in volume by the ensemble. The crowning moment of the first movement was the longing horn solo, beautifully played. Sofya Gulak’s impressive credits shone through in the second and third movements, with her and Shani worked together to get the widest dynamic contrast possible out of the Hallé string section – a truly magnificent sound when they really open the taps! The dash to the finish was well controlled, and rounded off a measured and well received (if slightly acoustically unbalanced) performance.

The orchestra certainly left their best performance until last. Stravinsky’s Firebird sits alongside The Rite of Spring and Petrushka as an integral part of the Diaghilev triptych of commissions, and is probably the most musically well-known of the three ballets. It was refreshing to hear the extended 1945 version, something the players seemed to relish more than the prospect of another performance of the 1911 version. The less familiar earlier movements were played with huge poise, beginning with double bass soli at a pin-drop dynamic. Generally, the wind soloists could have had as much verve as the horn solo in the Rachmaninov; the bassoon could have been even more haunting in the Berceuse movement, and I felt for the horn soloist having to play the heavy programme three times in one week. Personally, the different articulation used by Stravinsky in the 1945 version of the Finale has never sat comfortably with me; I prefer the expansiveness of a more marcato melody line. However, in attempting to show the difference between the two, the orchestra fell into the trap of making the forward-moving movement feel slightly stilted. However, the final triumphant brass chords more than made up for this, rounding off an excellent evening for the brass section. On the whole, despite taking a surprising amount of time to settle (this is concert has been repeated twice this week), and some balance issues hampering the Rachmaninov, Shani led the Halle through some delicate and subtle interpretations of well-known works, something which is no mean feat.