By far the smallest audience yet for the Hallé’s Beethoven Symphonies cycle gathered for this eighth instalment, conducted by Edward Gardner, and the absentees missed an evening of supreme charm and playfulness.

Edward Gardner, © Jillian Edelstein, Camera Press, London
Edward Gardner,
© Jillian Edelstein, Camera Press, London

Luciano Berio’s Rendering is a ‘restoration’ (not a completion, as the composer was very clear), of sketches for Schubert’s Tenth Symphony. It eschews imaginative ‘authentic’ ideas of how Schubert might have completed his score, and instead fills the lengthy gaps and jumps with dreamlike passages led by celeste and starry woodwind, or as Gardner described, a ‘magic curtain’. There are hints of Schubert, but the new material is unashamedly a sort of glue, rather than imitation. It gives the listener the effect of stepping back from a dream of Schubert’s music, before swirling into the next episode.

The sing-song clarinet melodies of the first movement were supported by thickly warm brass undercurrents. Throughout the three movements, the orchestra played with a joyful sense of unfolding Schubert’s ideas and lovingly discovering the music, the vigorous close of the first movement being a prime example of this. The whole piece remained rooted in simple melodies, with the second movement particularly childlike, perhaps evocative of Mahler’s Fourth in its innocent peace. The final movement danced around a tune initially provided beautifully by horn and viola, developing into a fine counterpoint between trombone and strings, all the while as part of a patchwork held together by celeste. The oboe solos were the loveliest of the woodwind playing, both Berio and orchestra joyfully realising this little-known music. Mark Elder, in the audience, applauded vigorously.

The playfulness continued after the interval, firstly with Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, in which Simon Crawford-Phillips and Philip Moore shone with immaculate solo and ensemble playing. They interacted very well, whether together or apart, sparkling throughout. The touch of both soloists was superb, always sensitive to the score and yet full of personality, especially in the sunny second movement. The orchestra accompanied very well, for the most part being a faultless side-act but occasionally showing sunny moments, with further good oboe playing in the second movement. Gardner balanced everything neatly and shaped phrases very attractively; the whole thing was very good fun.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 is a curious work, its motifs sometimes seeming almost banal in their simplicity and yet dotted with triple-forte passages (very rare for Beethoven) and repeated hammering of big chords. Beethoven toys with the listener, throwing in unexpected dynamic changes and delaying resolutions at will. Gardner embraced all this, throwing the orchestra into the first movement with a brisk but full opening theme, conducted mostly in a flowing one-in-a-bar. He seemed to deny the fortissimo climax of the first movement though, holding back slightly but later led on by enthused horns in thirds. The horn section was mostly very good throughout, despite a few split notes – singing in the Minuet’s trio and bounding in the Finale. The orchestra played as a unit very effectively, with the tutti staccato passages and vivacious attacks very clear. The winds were quite heavy in the metronomic Scherzo, but the inner movements were mostly light and breezy. After erupting into its joyous tutti and violently attacking the unison D flat, the finale swept along on contrasting legato woodwind lines, building much excitement. Huge warmth was evident in the music throughout, rolling onwards relentlessly, powered by the engine-room of bassoon and timpani and plunging into the D minor passage with panache. Some vigorous punch-conducting from Gardner brought the evening to an emphatic close.