One would be hard pressed to find a more eclectic concert programme than this Thursday Series concert from the Hallé with Markus Stenz. The German’s time with the orchestra as Principal Guest Conductor was most memorable for his central European repertoire, with a few modern programmes thrown in. This concert was a mix of both, working neatly backwards from the bright colours of Hans Werner Henze to the titanic Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, tracing a fascinating historic arc through the music of Ravel and Liszt. 

Henze’s Enchanted Forest of 1991 is a distillation of extracts from the second act of his gargantuan 1955 opera, König Hirsch, itself a setting of Carlo Gozzi’s play. Stenz directed the scenes with compelling imagery and drama, vividly capturing the forest’s sounds and mysteries with bold horn calls, sparkling percussive interjections and, in the later hunt scene, great clarity of string playing.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was broadly-spaced and fully embracing of its blues credentials, with moments of dazzling light in sharp contrast to the piano and woodwind solos. The contrabassoon launched the concerto with a fat, heavy fragment of the main theme, setting up the rich, warm and suitably jazzy hue of the rest of the concerto. The central Allegro carried a swaggering bounce in its stride, above which Gretha Tuls’ bassoon playing was superbly characterised. Kirill Gerstein produced some almighty thunder in the piano’s lower register (as he did later in the Liszt) alongside playing of great sensitivity and style higher up the keyboard, with tremendous technical security underpinning everything.

Placing Liszt’s Totentanz after the Ravel was a fabulous bit of programming, although Gerstein’s fingers could surely have done with an ice bath (if not actual First Aid) by the end! The many glissandi were attacked with uncompromising gusto, the deep bass Dies irae with enormous power, while thrilling energy and musical brilliance shone throughout. Stenz ensured that the orchestral accompaniment zipped along as a true dance, with full-blooded fire in the final outing of the theme.

The orchestra returned to the stage in the unusual formation it occasionally adopts for Beethoven, with violins, celli and basses divided either side of central violas. The symphony, in the end, grew to be an excellent performance, after a distinctly inauspicious opening few minutes. The four-note motif was not quite clearly delineated, and perhaps as a result the ensemble or pace never felt entirely secure in the exposition or its repeat. Things improved greatly in the development, allowing Stenz to shape a much greater sense of drama nearer the end of the movement. His and the orchestra’s styles, involving relatively ample (though tasteful) rubato and a rich string sound, were far more suited to the second movement, where the performance came into its own and some attractive individual moments underlined a general sense of yearning optimism. After a tense scherzo, the finale erupted into a thrilling, blazing affirmation, in which there was no shortage of ensemble precision.