Sir Mark Elder opened The Hallé’s 2012-13 season with two large works whose darker and more introverted aspects were highlighted very effectively. A disappointingly small audience turned out (the hall was perhaps half full) but the music was very much full and energised.

Sunwook Kim © Tae-Uk Kang
Sunwook Kim
© Tae-Uk Kang

Sunwook Kim, who in 2006 was the youngest winner of the Leeds Piano Competition in a generation, was soloist for Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2. Both of Brahms’ concertos are grand, symphonic works in which one has the impression of the pianist being more a part of the orchestra than in many other concertos. The second is strikingly long, with its four movements, and seems to stand between inner disquiet and jovial light-heartedness. It was the former which was stressed tonight; the longer, inward-looking lines given soft, lyrical treatment, and the lighter, dancing figures somewhat restrained.

The first movement’s expressive solos for first and third horn were well tended to, supported by a warm, rounded string sound. The strings’ fluid legato was also very well fitted to the contrasting solo in places, and Kim’s interaction with the orchestra was obvious; he would often swivel on his stool and stare intently around the strings. The Scherzo felt heavy and dark at Elder’s stately tempo. Next to this strife the lighter flute passages made for pleasant contrast, as did the third movement’s touching cello solos. There was a brief but beautiful duet between cello and oboe, each drifting in and out of prominence around the other. The strings accompanied well, softly underpinning twinkling piano figures before a soft and still return to the cello. There was potential for the more nimble fourth movement to upstage the preceding storminess and serenity, but it was restrained to a lovely gracefulness and steady tempo. Sweeping legato in the woodwind and strings echoed the third movement, making this seem like a soft smile with acknowledgment of what had gone before rather than a cheerful end-piece to the concerto. Elder’s control and Kim’s palette of lyricism and power made for a very coherent performance.

If the Brahms closed with quiet contentedness, Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 built towards very hard-won triumph. Elder shaped a long battle, denying full acceptance of major resolution until the very end of the fourth movement. The opening string figures were surprisingly bold and self-assured, though, launching a turbulent first movement of great agility, starting the journey at an assured stride rather than a melancholic shuffle. In the second movement the rumbling timpani and basses lingered, making a more substantial impression of bleakness than the brash, brassy outbursts could overpower, though this was perhaps aided by an occasional brass entry feeling slightly surprised and undercooked. Fierce bite and great clarity in the strings launched an aggressive third movement in which more lyrical oboe solos gave subtle glimpses of a distant resolution. After a slowly-brewed ascent into the fourth movement, Elder maintained a quick tempo, not allowing the apparent major-key atmosphere to settle for long and seeming almost to belittle the brass fanfares. At last, a door towards the conclusion was provided in the woodwinds’ minor-key second theme. Their hushed melody was realised beautifully, and after a vigorous return to the opening material they began a slow ascent with the strings to the symphony’s triumphant conclusion. The brass section was suitably grand and well balanced in its broad festivities, bringing the work to a very satisfying close. The programme’s two works, though quite different in character for the most part, were united by denial of outward shows of joy, making for an interesting and unusual couple of performances.

****1