Sir Mark Elder conducted a superb account of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony alongside colourful Stravinsky and elegant Mendelssohn at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

The first violins of the Hallé
The first violins of the Hallé

For Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the orchestra’s woodwind and brass sections were divided in the middle of the stage. The rich palette of sounds they created was strongly evocative of Debussy, in whose memory the work was written. The level of precision afforded by the intimate seating served as a reminder that the work’s title implies a coming together of sound, rather than the long orchestral structure that “symphony” has come to mean. From the marked, bell-like opening to the blocks of sound later on, the close attention to meticulous ensemble added a great deal to the music, giving the effect of the various instruments sounding as one. The brass section were especially impressive in their fine control over intonation and articulation at pianissimo dynamics, and their gentle swells and decays on each note were closely attended to.

Jack Liebeck replaced an indisposed Alina Ibragimova for Mendelssohn’s 1844 Violin Concerto. He gave a spirited, nimble performance of the third movement, after some more introspective playing in the earlier movements. The orchestral accompaniment was sensitive to his playing, with strings slightly reduced in number, despite a couple of minor ensemble slips.

The first two movements swung between anxious, unsettled themes and beautifully played softer corners. The intensity was deftly increased in the run up to Liebeck’s first cadenza, where he was particularly animated, before simmering down to a more circumspect tone. The slow movement saw some exceptionally beautiful string playing, with Elder directing in a very slow two-in-a-bar. A great deal of warmth was found by both orchestra and soloist. The highlight came at the return to the first theme, where the strings were wonderfully gentle with their soft chords.

The transition to the finale was delicately handled before Liebeck dashed away with his sparkling solo line. There was sprightly good cheer and exuberance here, occasionally to the slight detriment of precision, but on the whole this was an elegant and good-humoured close to the concerto.

Tchaikovsky was famously critical of his Fifth Symphony, believing that the eventual triumph, after extensive strife, felt somewhat insincere. Tonight’s performance certainly found a great deal to celebrate in a heroic ending, but the affecting playing heard earlier, especially in the Andante, had already offered another solution to the adversity, and so the final pages never threatened to feel insincere or overblown.

Elder very often chooses to seat the double basses along the back of the stage, behind the woodwinds, but tonight he split them on opposite sides of the stage, behind the first and second violins. This gave the string sound an unusually wide and rich base, and their playing in the first movement was among the best I have heard from them. After a brooding clarinet solo, the dotted rhythm central to the movement established itself with great clarity. The energetic first theme was supple enough to prevent the brighter second theme from standing out excessively, and the exuberant brass playing before the repeat neatly tied the two together.

Laurence Rogers’ extended horn solo in the slow movement was superbly shaped and played with a beautifully elegiac tone, as were his subsequent accompaniments to other wind soloists. There followed a vigorous tutti passage before some warmly redemptive string playing.

The third movement, by contrast, began with more than a hint of toy soldiers in the scherzoid waltz. The woodwind were impressively agile in their semiquaver runs, giving a sense of optimism before ending on a slightly darker note. The finale opened crisply, the fate theme given a march-like appearance, followed by some tormented playing, full of bustling energy. The ascent to the coda saw some ferocious string tremolos and imperious low brass playing. The coda itself was relatively brisk, giving a sense of great joy in addition to triumph over adversity. It closed a superb performance, characterised by a rich string sound and fine brass playing.