The opening night of the new Bridgewater Hall classical season, mercifully just five days post Last Night of the Proms, was an all-Russian affair, pitting a dashing Scheherazade against the considerable beauty of Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky. It was also the first in the Hallé’s intriguing series about ‘Fate’, a theme which underpins many of their concerts this year.

Sunwook Kim © Doh Lee
Sunwook Kim
© Doh Lee

The evening began with its only relative obscurity, the prelude to Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina. The opera’s opening minutes, subtitled Dawn on the Moscow River, are as opposed in character to the remainder of the opera as they are to their high-living composer. The Hallé strings exhibited wonderfully fine control to spin out pianissimo threads which hung weightlessly in the air at the outset, followed by great elegance and pastorolism in the early morning scene.

Tonight’s account of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor also happened to come just a few days after the same orchestral forces accompanied Vitaly Pisarenko in the final of the Leeds Piano Competition. The remarkably different lights shed on the two performances hints at the Hallé's admirably flexible willingness to adapt. Korean Sunwook Kim, a former Leeds winner and now regular soloist with the orchestra, brought immense power as well as clarity to his solo lines, while the rich autumnal orchestral colours provided a fine partner in performance.

The first movement quickly established a thick and warm sound palette in the middle registers of the violas, cellos and horns, while the upper strings offered pleasing clarity of articulation in their decorative figures. Sunwook Kim combined both of these facets: even in the thunderingly loud passages at the gravelly end of the piano, he was able to elicit admirable clarity in a melodic line. Together with the orchestra he gave a clear sense of shape to the work as a whole, deftly laying out subsections in the greater context of the whole concerto. It made great musical sense, and although the third movement’s impassioned escalation to the work’s coda very nearly derailed itself, the climax was a suitably stirring close without threatening to slip into over-sentimentality.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular Scheherazade presents the compelling fairytales of the title heroine against the Sultan Shahryar, described in Anthony Bateman’s programme note as a “misogynistic psychopath”. The Sultan’s moments tonight were rarely that brutal, and nor was Scheherazade over-sensualised into a sort of Carmen figure, but the technical mastery and convincing drama of each story made for a thoroughly enjoyable reading.

The orchestra’s leader, Lyn Fletcher, provided a superb solo role. Her beguiling playing in combination with the harp neatly punctuated the work with all the technical excellence one could hope for, plus a great deal of care and attention to tone and phrasing, whether having the final word or leading into the climactic moment of the third movement.

Sir Mark Elder’s tempos tended towards the brisk, which to some extent smoothed out the wildness of the seas in the first movement and the romance of the third. The former was instead a full-bodied, rolling ocean, built up from the oscillating repeated figures for cellos and second clarinet and resolving to the smooth-glass texture of the redemptive woodwind crotchet figures. The forward-leaning pulse also made for a rather graceful, rather than gloopy, third movement. The intermittent quicker passages for woodwind also seemed to make more sense in this context, as part of the elegant sweep of the movement as a whole.

All of the woodwind principals excelled in the second and fourth movements, though Gretha Tuls’ bassoon and Stephan Rancourt’s oboe playing offered the greatest character in the second. Here the interaction within the section was slick and responsive, giving good clarity and balance to their ensemble playing. The later brass ad libitum passages were not lingered upon to anything like the extent they usually are, which effectively maintained the dramatic arc of the movement. The same high-tension energy gave huge spark and drive to the finale, which zipped along thrillingly and with enormous technical facility to a tumultuous close.

****1