Celebrated pianist Paul Lewis returned to the Hallé to give an emotionally engaging account of Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, before a performance of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony in which nature and folk songs seemed to fly from all corners of the stage.

The concerto opened with a stormy, sweeping one-in-a-bar, all rage and tragedy, although it was pleasing to hear woodwind details shine through the thick textures. As soloist, Lewis generally eschewed grand displays of piano heroics, but found a softer and more even-footed role alongside the orchestra. There was a great sense of airiness even in his dark opening statements, and this balance of darkness and clarity proved to be an ongoing feature of the performance.

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd

The heart of the Brahms lay in the slow movement, painted on a vast canvas which neatly led from the tumult of the first to the fizzing energy of the third. However lovely were the early woodwind lines, true redemption was saved for later in a glorious display of string section playing. With the divided violins in opposition to the central cellos and rear-ranged basses, the wide-spaced, rich sound was as eloquent as one could hope for. The silence at the end of the movement brought a complete hush to the usual flourish of shuffling and throat clearing around the hall.

Lewis’ triumph in the finale was in his consistent ability to make the top line sing, even whilst handling Brahms’ intricate piano writing with immaculate accuracy. There was similar precision and textural clarity in the late fugue for strings. The eventual resolution closed the piece in a suitably joyous and emphatic manner, but just also with a good deal of coherence. This was measured, intelligent Brahms of very high quality.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major came across as less cerebral and altogether more organic. This was occasionally to the detriment of absolute precision, but the composer’s profound melodic generosity was relished to the maximum, along with every birdcall and storm-rumble of this richly coloured score. The slow movement’s storm was actually as violent as I have heard, tonight announced by a terrifying proclamation from the horns. Above all, the music was so convincingly Czech and so naturally bucolic in outlook that I was left at the end wishing that we might hear more Dvořák from the Hallé/Elder partnership.

The third movement captured this in a microcosm. Alongside the elegant string figures, the woodwind lines were pleasingly rustic in tone, with fine efforts from the principals, all on top form. The trio carried a delightful lilt in its stride and later on gave ample opportunity for heavily-applied string legato. The same spirited pastoralism came out very strongly in the finale. Taken at a relatively brisk pace from the introduction, it zipped along with gusto and tremendous character; the horn trills in the principal theme were thrillingly violent. It was breathless stuff, finishing in a romping coda after a last nod back to the slow movement. Having played this programme several times over the last few days before tonight’s final performance, it was pleasing to see the orchestra give it with such visually and musically obvious joy.

***11