Ryan Wigglesworth, the Hallé’s new Chief Guest Conductor, took the orchestra through an intriguingly conceived programme spanning two centuries of music and yet managing to find at its heart a common strand of religious sentiment. The highlight of the evening, as is usually the case when the Hallé Choir joins the orchestra, was an intelligent and rousing performance of Bach’s D major Magnificat of 1723.

Ryan Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega
Wigglesworth’s approach to this unusual corner of the repertoire for the Hallé was to encourage a streamlined but not self-consciously ‘authentic’ sound. The clarity of the orchestral playing, from continuo to trumpet solos, was impeccable, and the precision of the choir’s diction was impressive throughout. Standing at the rear of the stage rather than in the choir stalls gave the music a pleasingly intimate feeling, making climaxes such as that in the Fecit potentiam chorus all the more stirring, with blazing trumpets and timpani accompanying.

Of the four soloists, Christopher Purves (standing in at short notice) made the greatest impression, projecting his richly coloured voice out into the hall with consummate ease. Soprano Sophie Bevan and tenor Andrew Staples both sang with an attractively warm tone whilst maintaining an admirably clean sound, free of excessive vibrato. Christopher Ainslie’s countertenor found some beautifully haunting moments in the centre of the work. Wigglesworth, directing from the harpsichord, neatly paced and balanced the music while providing a sensitive and colourful continuo, and gave the quartet of soloists relatively ample freedom of expression. The overall tone of the Magnificat was of an outpouring of great joy, prompting a hearty ovation after its rousing last bars.

Stravinsky’s variations on Bach’s Christmas song, Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her, was altogether less straightforward, with the heart of the work seeming not quite to slide into focus despite technically fine playing and singing from all quarters. The solidity of the violin-less orchestral playing (with particularly memorable trumpet and flute ornamentations) allowed Wigglesworth to direct his fluid beat rather more at the choir. Here they remained seated throughout, never quite rising above a mezzo piano. It made for a pleasant curiosity as a concert opening, but was perhaps fatally dwarfed by the ensuing Bach.

Wigglesworth’s reading of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony sought to place it closer to the world of Beethoven than the later romantics. There was no excess of rubato or overblown opulence, but rather a stately and attractive setting of the composer’s final symphony. The flow of the opening minutes was steady rather than surging, highlighting neatly some good string legato and dialogue between violin sections across stage. The second movement was quick and pleasingly bucolic in outlook, with a boisterous climax giving the movement a clear sense of shape and in sharp contrast to the gentle, summery central movement. The horns, on whom high demands are made by the symphony, played particularly well throughout.

The trombones appeared for the magisterial Feierlich movement with a powerful sense of mystery and grandeur, glowing warmly with the horns and trumpets to conjure images of Cologne’s famous cathedral. The finale, launched directly from the dark last bars of the fourth movement, was bright and breezy, maintaining the attention to detail in the string playing. There was only a subtle pull-back of tempo into the coda, before the horns led the way to a sensible rather than boisterous finish.