The opening night of the Hallé’s 2011-12 season was a thrilling tour through highly descriptive and technically challenging repertoire, and will leave Manchester concert-goers with much to look forward to.

Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa © Tristram Kenton
Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa
© Tristram Kenton

The 1889 premiere of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan was conducted by the composer, then aged 25. The work bursts with youthful vitality, love and power, from the fast string passage in the very first bar to the heroic theme given to the horns later on. The Hallé gave a very secure and enjoyable performance, though the high drama of the work requires huge energy and explosive dynamism to be truly effective. Gourlay was able, for the most part, to draw this out, though a couple of the bolder passages seemed to catch one or two players slightly unprepared, causing the sound to blossom rather than explode. Generally, though, the brass and woodwind sections were in fine form, with a wonderfully passionate oboe solo from Stéphane Rancourt.

Young German violinst Sophia Jaffé has played with the Hallé several times in recent years, and, judging by Sibelius’ Violin Concerto this evening, they enjoy a very good relationship. Despite its fearsome difficulty, the concerto is a staple of the violin repertoire, leaving to the performer the challenge of bringing a fresh sound to performances. Jaffé achieved this with ease in a precise and strikingly intense reading. She created a profound narrative against the backdrop of the orchestra, which accompanied sympathetically and with considerable grace. The intensity of the solo could conceivably have been reined in at times during the first movement, in which a touch more restraint might have been effective. The second movement was deeply moving and passionate – Stephen Johnson’s programme note suggested that Sibelius may have been expressing regret at the failure of his promising violin talent to develop into the virtuoso he might have been. Jaffé and Gourlay seemed acutely aware of the musicality of the work, interacting very effectively to balance orchestra and solo perfectly and give the solo the sound space it requires. The large ovation was richly deserved, and prompted an evocative 17th century work for violin and principal cellist Nicholas Trygstad, entitled Imitations of Bells, which added nicely to a very successful concerto.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Scottish’ followed a tour of Scotland in 1829, though the symphony was not completed for a further thirteen years. The composer reported the key inspiration for the work as being the sight of Edinburgh’s decaying Holyrood Palace, and faded grandeur and mediaeval atmosphere are hinted at in the slow introduction to the first movement. Though slightly more space might have been left between phrases, the introduction and later third movement gave ample opportunity for the orchestra to display a fine quality of tone before the livelier music which follows. Scottish country dance (ceilidh) is hinted at frequently, particularly in the vigorous second movement, though the central theme of the movement is believed to be the composer’s own, rather than an authentic folk tune. Gourlay took the movement at an incredibly quick tempo, which was maintained and controlled throughout with superb semiquaver playing from all sections. The interlacing woodwind parts were perfectly articulated and balanced, and the horns created a wonderful blend of spritely yet bold sound. The fourth movement was tempestuous and exuberant, with a well managed demise before the coda, featuring majestic horns and trumpets. The coda finally allows a theme subtly hinted at throughout the symphony to be heard in full orchestration, and it was played with great joy.

Through the evening Andrew Gourlay, the Hallé’s young Assistant Conductor, justified his selection by Gramophone as their ‘One to Watch’ in 2010. In particular he showed an excellent grasp of the Symphony’s architecture, and crafted a magnificent performance. His future engagements will be eagerly awaited.

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