Principal Guest Conductor Markus Stenz joined the Hallé for a programme of richly romantic music in nature and name, from the impassioned chromaticism of Tristan and Isolde to the peaks and valleys of Bruckner. Stenz seemed to shirk away from easy heroism all evening, opting instead for softer and harder-won resolution.

Markus Stenz © Catrin Moritz
Markus Stenz
© Catrin Moritz

The first half of the concert, consisting of the two ends of Tristan and Isolde, was relatively muted. The opening mist-shrouded chords of the Prelude were highly atmospheric, widely spaced with ample intervening silence. The string sound which emerged was so luxuriously rich and legato as to seem slightly blurry on occasion. Depth of tone was much helped by placing the nine basses along the very back of the orchestra. There was deep tension in the famous Tristan chord, an ambiguous dissonance of F, B, D sharp and G sharp.

In the Liebestod most of all, Stenz reined in any temptations toward enraptured bliss. The tension of the Prelude was still present, but dynamics were held back until the very last bar or two of the crescendo into the climax of the scene. From the exquisitely soft entry of soprano Iréne Theorin, Stenz maintained a slow tempo and avoided accelerando. The result was something far from the drama of other renditions, but this soft, more measured approach was certainly quite refreshing. The tone seemed set from the opening lines – “How gently and softly he smiles” – and made for a quietly lovestruck Isolde. Iréne Theorin, replacing the indisposed Catherine Foster, was commanding and grew in intensity without threatening to derail the soft inclination of Stenz’s reading.

Bruckner initially wrote his Fourth Symphony in the midst of a wave of creative output in the early 1870s, and in its early form it was hailed by its dedicatee, Richard Wagner. Then came the disastrous première of the Third Symphony in 1877, condemned by Viennese press. Perhaps with dented confidence, the Fourth subsequently underwent multiple revisions. Tonight it was heard in its 1878–80 version. Descriptions of Bruckner’s music being “cathedrals of sound” abound to the point of cliché, but it was difficult to escape thoughts of the symphony’s architecture in Stenz’s hands, as the many small outbursts and changes in direction all seemed given context.

Romanticism as defined by natural influences seemed particularly highlighted in this performance, most of all in the first movement’s woodwind and horn calls. It was quick and airy from the outset, some fine horn solos tarnished only by the prolonged ringing of a mobile phone in the audience. The tutti realisation of the early theme was lively and vigorous, feeling very much like the dawn, which Bruckner is said to have labelled it. It was fresh and youthful, and at times boisterous.

The Andante had an air of stately grace in its soft winds and gentle viola melodies, which were beautifully played throughout. There was also an air of inevitability, though, in the many returns to the first movement’s horn motif, the tempo inflexible for the hauntingly quiet wind lines. The Scherzo, led by a pack of lively hunting horns, bounced along with impressive restraint at softer dynamics and joyous exuberance elsewhere. Interactions between horns and flute were particularly evocative of nature.

In the finale, Stenz seemed to sculpt a maturation of the early themes, developing them by allowing more space and hushed pianissimo to appear. Coherence was maintained largely by avoiding excessive, premature displays of grandeur. He led the orchestra to an almost imperceptible hush before the final reappearance of the opening material, and when the broad, heroic passages were finally allowed to bloom they seemed all the more deserved.

Bruckner’s writing for the horn section is extraordinarily prominent in the Fourth Symphony. The section played superbly tonight, but none more so than principal Laurence Rogers. His solos, beautifully intoned and phrased, earned him some appreciative claps on the back as soon as the last notes were played, and his was easily the biggest cheer of the evening.

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