The Pastoral Symphony is perhaps an optimistic choice for January in Manchester, but for a short while all memory of the deluge outside evaporated in the Bridgewater Hall.

Mark Elder, © Simon Dodd
Mark Elder,
© Simon Dodd

Olivier Messiaen’s suite L’Ascension opened the concert with serene, otherworldly modality in a masterfully sculpted brass chorale. The horn section, unusually, played the first half of the concert seated with the rest of the brass section stage left, which made for tight ensemble and a pure, focused sound, always well intoned and led by brilliant trumpet playing. The dissonances of Messiaen’s distinctive idiom were embraced throughout; never grotesque, but elusive and ethereal, well judged in balance and pacing by conductor Sir Mark Elder. The juxtaposition of the glassy unison woodwind line and rolling strings in the second movement was a fine example of this. Throughout the evening the attention to dynamic control, particularly in the shaping of phrase ends, was hugely impressive. The orchestra was nimble and articulate, meeting the timpani entry with a full-blooded crescendo, followed by some gravelly, visceral double bass playing and the third movement’s festive burst of an ending. The final movement, ‘Christ’s Prayer Rising To His Father’, glowed with warmth, with the front desk of cellos underpinning the floating violin line. The cello duo’s rich vibrato here created a wonderful humming core for the violins, playing almost without vibrato, to build upon, in a deeply meditative finale.

Written three years before the Messiaen, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is striking for its jazz influences and its rich, full piano part, written for Paul Wittgenstein (elder brother of the philosopher Ludwig) following the loss of his right arm in the First World War. In contrast to Ravel’s G major concerto of the same year, this piano concerto consists of a single movement and is often more boldly innovative, noticeably in its remarkable use of bassoon note-bending and growling contrabassoon, suitably elephantine in its realisation tonight. There are links to the G major concerto, particularly in gloating triplet broken chords.

The solo part, of course, makes huge demands both technically and physically. Pianist Nelson Goerner joked before the concert of the challenge of merely balancing on the stool with one hand off the keyboard, and also of the idiosyncratic challenges of a unidextrous concerto, the difficulty in balancing the heavy thumb on the top line and in pedalling to cover bumps and jumps. All of these facets were covered with apparent ease and relish, from the opening five-octave lunge, to the closing martial flourish. Both orchestra and soloist snapped between the jazzier passages and percussive military precision with admirable agility, and for the most part interaction between soloist and orchestra was excellent, although the orchestra occasionally threatened to swamp the piano. Nonetheless, it was a spritely and energetic performance from all parties.

As with all Beethoven symphonies, the challenge in performing the Sixth is in finding something new: engaging the audience without disturbing newcomers or boring the regulars. Elder had plenty to impose on this performance, achieved mostly through very close attention to the finer points of phrasing and dynamics. There were many enjoyable nuances of his interpretation; delicate staccatos and glorious hushes appeared where previously there had been none, making other performances seem almost lazy in comparison.

The first movement was full of vivacity and was carried at an enthusiastically brisk tempo, leaning back and relaxing only after the movement’s climax. The second movement was also quicker than is often heard, a touch which paid off in creating a pleasingly lilting brook, backed by wonderfully lucid and rounded string playing with no hint of an angled corner to be heard. The woodwind principals and horns played with a natural deftness of touch through the whole symphony, particularly in the first and third movements. In the minuet the horns, back in their usual spot, were boyishly exuberant, and the solo was beautifully rendered. Beethoven’s alleged imitation of a village band in the trio, with oboe and bassoon playing away from the beat, was humorous and delicate. The orchestra shifted into the storm very effectively, led by vigorous timpani and lower strings, and then with glorious reconciliation into the final movement. Here the upper strings were very impressive in threading the melody over the barlines and the lower strings hearty and warm in their answers. The movement was in general relatively celebratory, and quite spirited, rather than rested and sleepy.

In all, this was a fine reading of a very popular symphony, on the whole quite vigorous, and utterly pastoral.