Having previously been Assistant Conductor at The Hallé, André de Ridder returned to a bitterly cold Manchester to conduct a fascinating programme, culminating a beautifully autumnal account of Brahms’ Symphony no.4.

André de Ridder © Marco Borggreve
André de Ridder
© Marco Borggreve

The Brahms was by far the most successful of the evening’s works. De Ridder succeeded in incorporating some delightfully rich string playing into a very solid, logical whole. The depth of the string tone perhaps owed something to the placement of the basses at the back of the orchestra. There were some particularly fine moments in the slow movement, where an early transition from pizzicato to arco was handled with sublime gentleness, dawning into view with golden colours. At times the finale lost a small degree of clarity beneath the sea of legato, but the details were rarely missed and the colourfulness of the playing gave much to the performance.

The high-quality string playing also lent contrast to some fine wind playing. In the first movement the wind interjections felt quite volatile, full of tightly coiled energy, against the deep legato of the strings. Equally in the third movement, the sudden noisy boisterousness was much helped when compared with attractive melodic combinations between, for example, violins and oboe, and also with the preceding legato. The brass were full hope here, in marked contrast to the intense drama they created near the ends of the two outer movements.

De Ridder provided some nice personal touches, for example in giving a sense of space and fresh air to the woodwinds’ major key theme in the first movement. He seemed to have a very clear plan for the symphony and succeeded in drawing out a superb string sound. The result was a performance which, though not always the tidiest, was quite memorable for such a frequently-performed work.

The first half of the concert was an intriguing mixture of Ligeti and Beethoven. Chronologically, Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc is substantially closer to Brahms 4 than Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is. Musically, however, it is a world away. It is largely based on Romanian folk music, with bursts of pipes and fiddle, but also with frequent dissonances to which the composer attributed its banning by the Hungarian authorities. Tonight it was pulled off with great panache, the principal clarinet, horn and piccolo and leader Paul Barritt all shining in virtuosic passages. Barritt’s solos were particularly good, and judging by his audible foot-tapping he enjoyed them too. The alpine horn calls were very well managed, the offstage horn achieving just the right balance between presence and separation to create a very vivid effect, before the final tutti dashed to a thrilling close.

The one slight disappointment was the Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 3, which never quite reached the full dramatic potential of the outer movements. The introspective turbulence of the first movement felt somewhat lacking, and the thick string sound, later so effective in Brahms, often threatened to muddy the textures. The softer moments fared much better, with some quietly lyrical passages from soloist Saleem Abboud Ashkar. His performance was solid throughout, but in the slow movement he found attractive spaciousness in longer lines. There was great warmth in places throughout the concerto, and the breezy coda firmly emphasised the lighter elements of the work.