Jamie Phillips conducted the Hallé in a programme of Berlioz, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky which neatly combined vivacity and profundity in front of a packed Bridgewater Hall. In Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique in particular, he drew from the string section the kind of rich, soft-edged sound which suggests a very happy and productive relationship between the orchestra and its Assistant Conductor.

The concert opened with a razor-sharp flash of violin in Berlioz’s thrilling Carnaval Romain overture, which quickly gave way to the warm and full sound of the lower strings in accompaniment to Lisa Osborne’s fine cor anglais solo. The lengthy passage was given an affectionate and strong character, well supported by excellent intonation. Here Phillips did a good job of reconciling the lyrical top line with the rhythmic percussion effects when they appeared, with neither threatening to unbalance the other. The later Allegro Vivace zipped along with exhilarating verve, with intricate trumpet and horn lines well attended to and the two tambourines adding great flamboyance in their over-head flourishes.

John Lill © Roman Goncharov
John Lill
© Roman Goncharov

It was quite a wrench to go from the exuberance of Berlioz to the sombre, terse opening of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3. In the darkly abrupt, dry sound here, the gloom of Beethoven’s thoughts at the time of composition readily came to mind. Through the first movement the long sense of evolving drama was well conveyed by Phillips and pianist John Lill. The latter played in turn with imposing power and subtlety, closely linked to the orchestral accompaniment throughout. In the slow movement he seemed to offer redemption of sorts after the turmoil of the first. He was beautifully serene in his wandering right hand figures, with a few bolder displays of geniality interspersed.

The finale took a few moments to settle into tempo but retained the restless, skittish energy of the first movement. The major key passages, with lightly skipping flute lines, heralded the fresh sense of joy which would eventually become clear in the coda. Here at last, the piano and orchestra sparkled together in a very satisfying conclusion to the concerto.

The darker corners of the Beethoven were far outweighed by those of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, where the deepest depths of despair were plumbed. Again, Phillips balanced micro and macro-direction from the outset to excellent effect, the angst-ridden music unfolding to a huge, inevitable climax in the brass. Another tumultuous climax had much of the hall pinned back in their seats, although the subsequent reappearance of the sighing second theme might have been somewhat more delicate and more deeply affected. As it was, it remained more a doleful smile.

The foundations for the tragedy of the finale were laid in the buoyant exuberance of the third movement, a crisp march full of good humour and more than a touch of pomp. The orchestra clearly enjoyed themselves, desk partners grinning across at each other during furious tremolos on the way to a heroic and slightly wild end which recalled the bravura of the earlier Berlioz. Predictably, there was a large outbreak of (deserved) applause before the grief-stricken finale. There were still many moments of great beauty in the final minutes, though. The violins’ central melody seemed to float on a thick cushion of violas and celli, Phillips drawing the most wonderful sound from the strings in the powerful and deeply moving swell in intensity. Later on there was bitter anger rather than overt grief in the way he pushed through the horns’ repeated, rasping stopped notes. It was a powerful end to the symphony and concert, superbly done by all on stage and testament to the skills of the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor that they produce such good playing for him.