Andrew Manze made a welcome return to Manchester for this Hallé Opus series concert featuring three relatively compact and intimate works. Manze's credentials in the world of historically-informed performance practice are undisputed, although he seemed to save this for later on in the programme. His account of Mendelssohn's summery “Italian” Symphony did not particularly seem to take the direction one might have expected, in terms of style. In contrast to the later Brahms, tempi tended towards the slow and textures were relatively full. The first movement felt especially deliberate with his four-in-a-bar direction and very careful and detailed direction, often seeming to have a tight hand on the reins rather than let the music slip into a quicker but more relaxed tempo. The steady pace did, however, allow a good deal of the detail to come through, particularly in the string writing, and there was a sense of each musical line being carefully shaped.

Andrew Manze © Benjamin Ealovega
Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega
The two inner movements found a touch more breathing space, and some pleasing grace of phrasing. The finale, though again far from a breathlessly manic Saltarello, was punchy and vigorous. The woodwind, and flute especially, gave their intricate lines with great attention to articulation. This was not the leanest or most thrilling “Italian” ever, but Manze nonetheless found plenty of original touches on the music.

In Richard Strauss' Horn Concerto no. 1, completed half a century after the Mendelssohn, Manze and the orchestra found a far brighter, crisper sound, perhaps thanks to the slightly pared down orchestra (although the timpani reverted from hand-tuned to modern instruments). From the opening chord the sound was almost neoclassical, partly in the strings' light and attentive accompaniment to the solo line, but also in the brightness of the wind and trumpets. Above this sympathetic and light support, Laurence Rogers was able to express a great deal of musicality in the solo line. Being an experienced principal within the orchestra surely helps here, but the sense of collective contribution to the concerto was obvious, allowing credibly chamber-style playing to emerge, even with the soloist playing from the score.

After the heroism of the first movement, Rogers found a beautifully mellow and occasionally haunting tone for a touchingly introspective Andante, where soaring interval leaps were given with great care and wonderful legato. The finale, by contrast, was a thrilling, dashing tour-de-force. The virtuosic horn writing was navigated with apparent ease, leaving room for mutual understanding to shine through (in collaboration with pianissimo flute arpeggios, for instance). After a huge, brassy cadenza, the music galloped through its last minutes, ending an immensely satisfying performance.

Brahms' two Serenades, both written before any of his symphonies, were full of the requisite light and warmth in Manze's hands. The warmth of the sound was no doubt aided by the violas taking prominent lead in the notable absence of violins from the score, and the small overall size of string section (just 17 players). The music never threatened to become over-serious, yet there was a constant elegance and charm in the music, particularly so in the attractively played oboe solos of the Sicilienne third movement.

The Scherzo found a playful bounce thanks to the collectively sharp, crisp articulation, and there was a pleasant bloom on the tutti sound which reflected Manze's close attention to balancing the unusually-proportioned orchestral forces. The Menuetto and Rondo finale were similarly playful, with pleasingly flowing woodwind lyricism in the former and a tin-soldier crisp lightness in the latter. The last pages, when the piccolo finally comes into its own, were joyously innocent, closing an interesting and carefully considered performance.