Mark Elder finished his part in the Hallé’s Beethoven cycle with a rambunctious performance of the seventh symphony, with works by Sibelius and Bartók adding to a dynamic evening of music.

Nikolaj Znaider, © George Lange
Nikolaj Znaider,
© George Lange

Before conducting Sibelius’ tone poem The Bard, Elder paid tribute to the late Paavo Berglund, the great Finnish conductor and champion of all things Sibelian, who died last month. The unmistakeable idiom of Sibelius was apparent throughout this performance; unison woodwind and thready violins hang over brooding lower string murmurs. The harp, representing the bard’s lyre, was prominently placed directly in front of the conductor, between violas and celli, and played very well. The broken chords seemed always to be perfectly spaced for the moment, and the orchestra was very sensitive to the vulnerability of the harp, making for a beautifully wistful atmosphere. The gentle ebb and flow is disturbed only once by the broad entry of trumpets and trombones, and the moment was all the more poignant for its delay.

Nikolaj Znaider, tonight’s soloist in Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2, will return later in the Beethoven cycle to conduct the Ninth Symphony, and he showed a comfortable ease in leading and shaping the music this evening. Orchestra and soloist displayed a remarkable agility in adjusting to the hairpin changes in mood, to the effect of seeming almost to toy with the audience; Bartók frequently builds a crescendo, giving the listener hope of resolution, only to divert suddenly to an entirely different scene. In the first movement, biting, frenetic strings gave way to the gliding solo, then sudden orchestral gales, with shrieking piccolo and dominant brass. The strings attacked the martial pizzicato passages with vigour, with the sharp sound of string on wood.

The comic aspects of the work were nicely highlighted, with trills, flutter-tonguing and hearty glissandi squirting from the brass section through the concerto. Znaider was excellent throughout, creating long, high-arching lines amongst intense semiquaver passages played with impressive precision. The first movement cadenza was lyrical and bold, perhaps even with space for holding back slightly. He also interacted with the orchestra very well, particularly pleasingly with celeste and harp in the first movement and with the timpani’s punctuation in the gentler second movement. His care for the melody here was supreme: meditative and serene, with gentle woodwind chords beneath his line, then taut and exuding elasticity. The Allegro molto was swept along by Elder in a lively triple time again dotted by percussive interjections, here industrial and mechanical. Znaider maintained fine articulation and meticulous care for each note to the end, and both orchestra and soloist were warmly applauded.

In terms of interpretation and musicality, tonight’s symphony was Elder’s finest contribution to the cycle, even after very fine performances of the third and sixth in particular. He was, for the most part, backed by very good playing, despite an occasional split horn note and the opening chords being slightly awry. The horns were actually doubled, and they played very well as a section, their reinforcement serving to thicken and warm the sound, never threatening to overpower. This was quite a personal reading; the first movement steadier than many others, the second moving along relatively briskly, and the final two movements infused with breathtaking energy. The introduction to the first movement felt almost an extension of the Pastoral, glowing with warmth and blossoming into a playful rather than boisterous vivace. The strings maintained the fierce bite they showed earlier in the evening, but also bounced along with untroubled freedom in the recapitulation. By contrast, they were held to a breathy hush early in the second movement, seeming merely to brush against each chord. Elder shaped this movement especially well, and brought out some beautifully delicate counterpoint interaction between first and second violins.

The same supple dynamism was a great help in the third movement, in which a light touch made the woodwind-string dialogues very enjoyable. The trio was remarkably quick, and seemed all the more coherent for it, aided by some lovely phrasing and well-balanced wind. Principal oboe and flute were superb throughout, remaining energetic and beautiful, most of all in the small turns in the flute line in the first movement. The fourth movement settled immediately at a very lively tempo and stormed along with fiery lower strings and triumphant horns. The crescendo into the final climax, one of the few triple forte passages in Beethoven’s writing, was approached with eager spirit and galloped to a furious close.