A programme consisting of a short orchestral piece, a piano concerto and a symphony by three of the world’s favourite composers might suggest a routine concert but The Hallé’s last Thursday evening concert of 2016 was far from conventional. For a start, there were two conductors. Sir Mark Elder, Music Director of the Hallé, is a renowned conductor and great favourite of Manchester audiences. The first work of the evening, however, was entrusted to Harish Shankar, a young Malaysian conductor of Indian origins who was educated in Germany and who is Junior Fellow of Conducting at the RNCM. On the evidence of his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fatum his is a name to watch out for.  

Harish Shankar © Merlijn Doomernik
Harish Shankar
© Merlijn Doomernik

Fatum is an early work of Tchaikovsky’s and a very unfamiliar one. At its first performance in 1869 it was well received and the composer wrote that it was one of the best things he had written, but a month or so later Balakirev conducted the second performance and commented unfavourably on it, especially the “appalling cacophony” of the ending. Tchaikovsky evidently changed his opinion of the work and destroyed the score, which was only reconstructed after his death and has been performed only infrequently since. It ranges through varying moods: as Harish Shankar pointed out in his pre-concert interview, fate encompasses light and cheerful aspects as well as more sombre ones, and there were plenty of lyrical themes to enjoy. The ending, however, was astonishing. The music veered into something very modern. One can understand why Balakirev did not like it. I loved it! The whole work was given a fine performance by the Hallé and our conductor in his debut with the orchestra.

The concerto was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major (which was in fact written after the concerto known as no. 2 but was published first), with Stephen Hough as soloist and Mark Elder conducting. This is an early work: Beethoven was still known as a pianist as much as a composer, he wrote it to play himself and it shows much youthful exuberance, especially in the last movement. The challenge is to achieve the right balance between Classical poise (and the opening of the concerto could almost be by Mozart) and the foreshadowing of the anguished, stormy music that the composer would write later and that the Romantics would identify as their own. Happily, orchestra, soloist and conductor combined to get this exactly right. Stephen Hough dazzled in the first movement cadenza while retaining the elegance needed. The orchestra delicately accompanied the soloist in his beautiful second movement melodies and he repaid the compliment when they took over the tune. The high spirits of the rondo theme in the final movement, first stated by the piano alone, then taken up by the orchestra, proved a rousing conclusion of a stylish and enjoyable performance.

The second half of the concert was taken up by Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor. This is one of the composer’s last works, written in 1935 in Switzerland and first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Stokowski the following year. Rachmaninov had written relatively little since he had left Russia in 1917 and of his later works only the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) has gained the popularity of his earlier compositions. The Third Symphony has often been unfairly considered a problem work.

It contains allusions to Rachmaninov’s favourite Dies irae motto (in keeping with the fate theme running through the concert and the Hallé’s season as a whole), hints of Russian Orthodox church music and recollections of the sound world of the composer’s earlier works. Yet in the Hallé’s performance it did not feel predominantly nostalgic. Just as prominent as the reminiscences of pre-revolutionary Russia were melodies suggesting American film music, reminding us that the symphony was written for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski and that Rachmaninov had been a frequent visitor to the USA since 1909.

The symphony moves at a leisurely pace, taking time to reveal its delights and changing moods. Snippets of tunes heard at the beginning are expanded almost imperceptibly into full-blown melodies. The slow movement contains a surprising scherzo and the finale after many twists and turns reaches a rousing conclusion. Sir Mark and the orchestra ensured that everything came together in a satisfying whole without being rushed. We heard Rachmaninov’s use of a very large orchestra to its best effect. Along the way musical colours changed subtly with orchestral solos tickling the ear, sometimes with one instrument becoming prominent and then receding into the orchestral texture: a few notes from the bass clarinet here, a theme on the celesta there, often contrasting with soaring string melodies.  We were left in no doubt that this was a masterpiece.