The Hallé opened its season with this programme of three familiar Russian works under conductor Pablo González. The least familiar of the three, Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night overture, received a spirited performance from all sections and got proceedings off to a rousing start which the rest of the performance only fitfully delivered.  

Barry Douglas © Mark Harrison
Barry Douglas
© Mark Harrison

Barry Douglas’ account of the solo part in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was as muscular, rough-hewn and confident as the Hallé’s accompaniment seemed subdued and, at times, tentative. There were moments during the long developmental section of the first movement when the performance seemed to hang fire, with some suspect intonation from the woodwind and pregnant pauses in the conducting that were never brought to bed. Halfway through a second movement seriously lacking in poetry and wide-eyed wonder, the sense of a conductor and a soloist at odds with each other began to suggest itself: Douglas lingered over some passages and tore through others. His achievement in Russian music is acknowledged but this was clearly not one of his better nights and by the end of the Allegro con fuoco, which Douglas tore through at a frenetic pace with the orchestra tagging limply along, it was hard to resist a feeling of relief, shared equally by pianist and conductor.  

Tchaikovsky's agonised “Pathétique” symphony is one of the most heartfelt (and least dignified) outpourings in the symphonic repertoire yet the scope for interpretation is vast. Over its 124-year history, conductors from Klemperer to Bernstein have given us Pathétiques that are variously fastidious, self-indulgent, extroverted and introverted. There is an argument that the work is so melodically rich that it can survive even an indifferent performance – which, unfortunately, it received here. There was nothing especially bad about Gonzalez’ interpretation but it badly lacked individuality and was afflicted by the same intermittent listlessness as the earlier Concerto. The yearning main theme of the Andante section of the first movement was neither relished nor understated but baldly objectified; much the same could be said for the Allegro second movement, which went for nothing under Gonzalez’ pale grey beat. A lack of propulsiveness in the Allegro con vivace third movement yielded the thankless dividend of there being no mood-shattering applause before the final movement, but that was largely because there wasn’t much of a mood to shatter. 

Given previous form, it was no surprise that the final Adagio Lamentoso was similarly low impact and left at least one member of the audience feeling not so much emotionally drained as emotionally vacant; certainly not in the place at which this symphony should leave you.

Throughout the programme, there was some excellent solo work from the Hallé players, but not much evidence of shared excitement from the body of the orchestra as a whole. If this was intended as a comfortable start to the season – three familiar works which they have all played many times before – it was perhaps too cosy a choice. I hope the rest of the season provides them with more stimulating fare.   

**111