The Hallé has opened its new season and after a long 18 months, The Bridgewater Hall can once again hold a full orchestra and audience without social distancing. There was a sense of anticipation before the first concert last night. Were expectations met? Absolutely!

Sir Mark Elder conducting The Hallé
© The Hallé

The first piece was Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This incredibly moving music was just right for the occasion. In the interval I overheard several members of the audience comment on how they were overwhelmed by it, in particular after missing live orchestral music for so long. The second string orchestra of nine players was placed on the platform behind the main orchestra, creating a visual as well as aural contrast between the two. The solo quartet of the Hallé’s principal players and the two string orchestras played with delicacy and intensity as required, all beautifully shaped by the orchestra’s music director Sir Mark Elder.

Next came a well-nigh perfect account of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor. The composer somewhat ingenuously claimed that this was a piece aiming at entertainment rather than profundity in the manner of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, but this concerto is surely a piece in which the glittering surface connects us with something much deeper – as with Mozart’s piano concertos. In this performance everything came together. The high spirits of the opening gave way to languid suggestions of Spain and recollections of popular music of the 1930s appeared from time to time, but nothing was laboured. Orchestra and soloist brought out the humour in the piece, with Gallic charm but also drama. Various instrumentalists shone in their substantial moments in the limelight. The interplay between orchestra and pianist was ideal. Grosvenor seemed to respond to Elder and The Hallé and share his material with them. The dreamy solo in the second movement was perfectly judged and the way the woodwinds joined him was magical. And of course there was stunning virtuoso playing. Grosvenor made light of the technical demands of the music, he and the orchestra creating an exceptionally satisfying whole.

The main work in the second half was Sibelius’ Symphony no 2 in D major but before it we heard Thea Musgrave’s Song of the Enchanter. This was written in 1990 to honour the 125th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth. It is a musical interpretation of an episode from the Kalevala, the collection of Finnish folk tales that inspired Sibelius, but this story of the hero-god Väinämöinen is one that did not make it into one of his tone poems. Lasting only a few minutes, it is a beautiful, atmospheric little piece for large orchestra forming both a fitting tribute and an appropriate introduction to the symphony that followed.

Sibelius’ Second has been a Manchester favourite ever since The Hallé give its first UK performance in 1905. What a contrast with the Ravel! Here there was no superficial sparkle or lighthearted chatter. Rather, everything felt logical, powerful, inexorable. Enjoyable and entertaining of course, but in a very different way from the French master. Elder is a distinguished Sibelian and The Hallé were on top form, the strings surging and sweeping us along. The woodwinds revelled in Sibelius’ distinctive writing and the brass glowed. When the “big tune” emerged in the finale, it felt absolutely necessary and perfectly right. A glorious ending to the first concert of the new season which augurs well for music-making in Manchester.