French conductor Louis Langrée returned to Manchester's Bridgewater Hall to take the Hallé through an all-Russian Opus series concert, in which a barnstorming Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony outshone the same composer’s Rococo Variations and Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.

Louis Langrée © Benoit Linero
Louis Langrée
© Benoit Linero

Beyond the shared country of origin of the afternoon’s works, thematic connections tying the programme together were not easily apparent. So disparate in outlook were the concert’s two halves that they really might have been brought together by nothing more than chance. The weight of energy thrown at Tchaikovsky’s notoriously fate-driven F minor symphony of 1877-8 eclipsed the Rococo Variations by a long shot, making it seem a polite pre-amble to the main event. Such a fate typically befalls music programmed alongside Mahler symphonies, but to achieve such a peak of dramatic power with Tchaik 4 speaks a great deal about the quality of its performance today.

The tumultuous fanfare theme which announces the symphony’s opening and reappears at intervals later in both the first and last movements was spat out with huge ferocity from the brass section at every appearance. Trumpets, trombones and tuba to Langrée’s right, and horns to his left, tossed the theme between each other as if heralding some cataclysmic battle, and flung down a gauntlet for the agitated waltz-time theme which follows. The strings here conjured a sound which was at once hearty and rounded while sensitive to the sense of rhythmic propulsion required to drive the music forwards. After the lighter and altogether more elegant second theme, the steady crescendo and subtle accelerando back to the climactic fate motif, propelled by soft timpani strokes, carried a deeply satisfying sense of inevitability in its stride.

After a collective exhalation echoed around the hall at the close of the first movement, Langrée’s grasp of the work’s macro-structure became similarly evident in framing the inner movements firmly in the context of the wilder outer movements. The second movement was a relatively light and forward-looking Moderato, while the scherzo was full of charm and good humour in its pizzicato themes. The finale then erupted and galloped along with all the energy of a frenzied dance to close a very satisfying account of this wonderful symphony. 

Prokofiev’s mid-war “Classical” Symphony of 1916-17 was treated as a playful overture to the concert, and while all of the tunefulness and good spirits of this delightful work were captured by the orchestra, Langrée’s direction often tended towards being a little heavy-footed. Tempi were generally broad and textures full, making for a warm, if not particularly lithe, sound. There was a great deal of hugely attractive individual playing in the finale, after taking a bar or two to settle, particularly in the woodwinds’ crisply articulated double-tongued passages. This wasn’t the most athletic Classical, but its good-humoured sparkle was nicely realised.

Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, sandwiched between two symphonies and in retrospect overshadowed by the latter, was perhaps done a disservice by its inclusion in this programme rather than that of a smaller orchestra. The pared down string section, built upwards from just four basses, did an admirable job of supporting cello soloist Jian Wang’s slender and refined sound without competing with him, but it was difficult to escape a sense of this being polite entertainment. The more lively staccato runs in the latter variations fared better, giving Wang a chance to demonstrate his unarguable quality as a very fine cellist. His encore, Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile, actually left a more moving impression that the variations themselves. Notwithstanding this, however, there was much to admire in this concert.