Continuing their season-long Beethoven cycle, the Hallé programmed the Fifth Symphony with a neo-romantic piano concerto by Samuel Barber and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, forming an eclectic mix of works to which orchestra and conductor responded very well.

Garrick Ohlsson, © Paul Body
Garrick Ohlsson,
© Paul Body

The Siegfried Idyll was created by Richard Wagner as a Christmas gift to his wife Cosima, also in celebration of the recent birth of their son Siegfried. Themes from the eponymous opera form the spine of the work, hinting at motherhood, lullabies and nature. The playing was airily lyrical and gentle: thoroughly maternal, and later passionate in some luscious horn playing above the glassy shimmer of the strings. They accompanied well for a fine oboe solo too, in a passage of rich ensemble which formed the highlight of the work. Koenigs allowed the music to breathe freely, ebbing pastorally between themes, and backed by fine playing, particularly from the woodwind section.

The same section, in the pre-concert recital, had performed a Barber wind quintet with great panache and some interesting comments on the music, and they produced an excellent sound throughout the evening. In the same composer’s Piano Concerto, intriguing links are explored between classical form and modernism; neither overt at any point, but in constant antithesis. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson performed superbly, creating a performance of enormous power and energy from the bold opening statements, and maintaining a feverish intensity throughout. The music flowed and bustled alternately, swimming through intricate woodwind passages and nagging delicacy in the solo. The lyrical nature of the second movement, with its wandering melodies for woodwind (perhaps suggestive of Prokofiev) and gently oscillating accompaniment, created a wonderful effect. When it appeared, particularly at the end of the piece, the power from the brass and percussion sections was very dramatic, and Barber’s ability to surprise the listener with aggressive changes in direction was supported by very responsive playing, crisp in attack and release. The thunderous piano in the closing bars, over timpani and pizzicato bass, stirred up great excitement and led to a thrilling finish.

There is little to say about Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 which has not already been said or performed. The supreme challenge to the conductor is to avoid stale performance, and Koenigs did so quite successfully this evening. This required a certain artistic licence, but the use of crescendos and decrescendos in some unusual places, and a constant attention to expressive phrasing made for an interesting and pleasing reading. The sound of the famous opening bars might have been lacking something, but the orchestra seemed to embrace the drama more fully in the repeat. The movement grew in intensity to quite a powerful level, ably supported by nimble flips from pianissimo to fortissimo. The second movement was the triumph of this evening’s symphony, however. The shaping of the line, coupled with very fine attention to articulation, made for an exquisite effect. The lower strings were rich and warm and the woodwind free and songful, interspersed with particularly beautiful staccato. The balancing of the main theme against its semiquaver accompaniment was also excellent. In the Scherzo, Koenigs might have kept a closer control on dynamics in the mysterious opening material, which he seemed to do when it was repeated later. The last movements were imposing and animated throughout, though - much like the conductor, who must have felt air under his feet on several occasions. The transition to the fourth movement, from tentative searching to joyful blooming, was especially pleasing. The orchestral playing was excellent, although the timpani were a little reserved in places. They held the musical line consistently through fine phrase shaping, and charged to the close with gusto. The Hallé are now over half way through the cycle, arguably now at its business end, and audiences can justifiably hope for some fine performances.