Dvořák’s three last and most popular symphonies appear in turn in each of the week’s three Opus series concerts in Manchester, alongside the Cello Concerto and Slavonic Dance. One might regret the missed opportunity to explore the rarely heard earlier symphonies (the early D minor or F major, for instance), although the festival’s rarities came last week in the Piano Concerto, and next Saturday in the form of St Ludmila. The onus was on the symphonies, then, to find something interesting to say while fulfilling their role as dietary staples in the repertoire. Tonight’s account of the Seventh did not disappoint the predictably large audience.

Gary Hoffman © Bernard Martinez Moyenne
Gary Hoffman
© Bernard Martinez Moyenne

The key to the symphony’s success lay largely in the clarity of the overarching narrative in this most Brahmsian of Dvořák’s symphonies. The dramatic arc of the music was hugely engaging in Sir Mark Elder’s hands, making for high drama in the outer movements and a thoroughly pleasing overall coherence. The first movement played out in a compelling expanse of sound driven from the middle strings, Elder having noted Dvořák’s early career as a violist earlier in the evening, with rich support from the rear-ranged basses. Attractive moments of detail were highlighted in some wind solos too.

The slow movement was similarly aesthetically and dramatically pleasing. The horn section, in good form all evening, found a wonderfully sonorous bloom of sound for their glowing melody, and the later climax was powerfully nostalgic. In the finale, after a brisk opening scene, the music continued to unfold in the most natural, cogent manner, the main theme carrying a steady, deliberate tread and the woodwinds lifting their melodies along with utmost grace. The last pages of the symphony saw the brass blow hell-for-leather into a thrilling close.

The first half of the concert was equally elegant and stylistically satisfying. The Slavonic Dance of the night was the famous E minor dance from Op.72. Here the violins’ legato and pizzicato viola and cello accompaniment flowed with consummate ease, even the pizzicato seeming to ripple gently. It made for a charming and suitably Bohemian aperitif.

Canadian cellist Gary Hoffman was soloist for the much loved Cello Concerto of 1894, the year following the New World Symphony. The concerto was handled gently by all parties, easing into a steady tempo from the brooding opening. Laurence Rogers’ fine horn solo brought a glimpse of light before Hoffman’s first entry, from which his thick, rich tone quickly came into its own. Hoffmann was at his best in the softer moments, such as in his prolonged slow movement solo with flute accompaniment and in the finale in duet with the orchestra leader. The purity of his tone, particularly in the upper extremes of the instrument’s range, was wonderfully controlled, making for a brilliantly colourful account of the concerto.