Stanisław Skrowaczewski’s sporadic return visits to the Hallé have inevitably become more and more precious as he pushes into his tenth decade, and the affection held for him in Mancunian hearts was plainly audible when he turned to acknowledge the applause at the end of his frail but purposeful stride onto the Bridgewater Hall stage.

Stanisław Skrowaczewski © Toshiyuki Urano
Stanisław Skrowaczewski
© Toshiyuki Urano

The lack of ego in his functional, pragmatic directorship belied his substantial authority with both orchestra and repertoire tonight. His tenure with the Hallé came precisely halfway between those of Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Mark Elder, making a considerable contribution to the orchestra’s pedigree. It was also remarkable to think that he was born merely 26 years after Brahms’ death.

Once on the podium, he stands (no stool in sight) in a fixed position, the score remaining closed in front of him more as a token than a tool. From the outset of Weber’s Der Freischutz Overture he drew from the strings a silkily smooth but warm tone, making for a pleasing accompaniment to the brightly voiced horn calls. There was a similarly successful contrast between the alternating lyrical and stormy passages. The coda was suitably vivacious, but underpinned by a roundly full-bodied central European sound.

The orchestra’s principal cellist Nicholas Trygstad was soloist for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, one of the composer’s final works before his descent into long term psychiatric illness. The composer’s self-proclaimed dual personality of Florestan and Eusebius, arguably suggestive of a bipolar disorder, can often be heard within the grand sweep of the concerto. To bring out the light and dark of the concerto and the running together of the three movements necessitates a sound grasp of the work’s structure. This, of course, was never felt to be lacking in Skrowaczewski’s direction nor Trygstad’s playing. The ebb and flow of the whole was neatly and unobtrusively managed while allowing orchestra and soloist ample freedom of expression.

The string section was markedly reduced to some 30 players for the Schumann, permitting an excellent clarity of texture in the orchestral accompaniment. Trygstad, for his part, played with a clean, direct sound and subtlety of expression. This paid dividends in the central Langsam movement. The finale then buzzed with renewed vigour to close a fine performance.

If the sense of structure in the Schumann was readily apparent, I can’t recall hearing a performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in which the music was laid out with such perfection of proportions as tonight’s. It was thrillingly logical and coherent from the stately opening of the first movement to the dramatic finale. The former unfolded with utmost ease, constructing a wonderful sense of mystery which was punctuated by the occasional chink of sunlight. There was a stirring surge of momentum into the end of the movement, followed by a lengthy and very effective pause, of the sort that more often follows the end of a Mahlerian first movement.

The slow movement displayed some gloriously warm string playing at the climax of the movement after the long, unhurried procession leading to it. The sudden fizz of the third was all the more striking for this, Skrowaczewski still restrained in gesture but extracting great vivacity from the orchestra. It remained light-footed and clean throughout.

The finale, launched directly from the Scherzo, continued the same methodical approach but with a deeply moving, inevitable roll towards the conclusion. The tempo was pulled back minimally for some elegant woodwind playing before the loveliest of trombone chorales. The beauty of soft expression and hanging silences between phrases made for a memorably eloquent passage. From here the music drove with great resolve through the last pages.

The revered Polish conductor received the heartiest of standing ovations from both the normally reserved Manchester audience and also the musicians on stage, pointedly sitting back down to acknowledge their conductor. The hall went quiet only momentarily when Skrowaczewski stumbled slightly on his way off stage. To the relief of all he righted himself and carried on; long may he continue to do so.