This intriguing Hallé programme placing lesser-known gems by Suk and Rachmaninov alongside well-loved favourites by Dukas and Janáček was a potent reminder of all that has been missed in the last two years.

Boris Giltburg
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

The emotional heart of the evening was Boris Giltburg’s Rachmaninov. The last of his concertos, the Fourth moderates the decadent lyricism of the earlier concertos and packs an altogether more uneasy, unsettled sort of punch. Giltburg’s approach was high-octane from the outset, frequently fully lifting off from his stool to reinforce the heaviest passages. The first movement kept up a lively pace after a brisk start, though never at the expense of attractive individual solos, the cor anglais the best of a good bunch. After the thundering last moments of the first movement, the second was a welcome, spacious reprieve. The finale erupted into life and flew through its last pages at breakneck tempo, Giltburg meeting the challenges of the solo line with unflappable virtuosity. A meditative encore of the same composer’s A minor Étude Tableau was a welcome post-script.

Joseph Suk’s Scherzo fantastique had earlier headed the first half in style, a 15-minute kaleidoscope of orchestral colour, pitching wonderfully rich string timbres against muted brass mischief. The sense of fantasy was much heightened by razor sharp wind articulation and a marked contrast between the drama of the central section and outer themes. In Sir Mark Elder’s illuminating pre-concert talk he lamented the relative scarcity of Suk’s music on concert platforms; based on this performance, it’s hard to disagree.

Sir Mark Elder conducts The Hallé
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

After settling into a relatively conservative tempo, the focus in Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice was on beauty of sound rather than chaos. With harps doubled up and woodwinds always held prominent, the sense was of ballet rather than dramatic tone poem. Elder went through the gears for a big, brassy climax, but this gentler-than-average style in a familiar work was a refreshing approach.

As if the last two years had scarcely happened, Janáček’s Sinfonietta finished the evening in momentous style. With brass reinforcements stationed throughout the choir stalls, the ultra-legato sound in the outer movements’ impeccable fanfare theme was overwhelming. Covid-friendly programmes of classical and early romantic repertoire are all well and good, but this was a powerful reminder of what we have missed for two seasons. The inner movements shone spotlights on fine individual and sectional playing, most memorably the muted trombones in the second and harps (again doubled) in the third. After a light and Scherzo-like fourth movement, the woodwind duets of the fifth neatly set up a return of the fanfares to close a superbly conceived programme.