Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé Orchestra continue to achieve extraordinary things in Manchester, earlier this week winning Gramophone awards for the third consecutive year and tonight giving further reason to celebrate with the opening concert in their 2011-12 Beethoven cycle.

Mark Elder © Sheila Rock
Mark Elder
© Sheila Rock

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 opened the concert with considerable elegance and grace, with form firmly anchored in the classical period. The composer’s originality, however, is in evidence from the first note, a discord in what seems to be the wrong key, before unfolding into a spritely symphony full of musical innovation. Great attention was paid to the delicacies and details of the music whilst maintaining delightful shaping of phrases. This was especially the case in the fourth movement, played at a remarkably brisk tempo which demonstrated the longer phrase shapes very clearly. The playing was for the most part very accurate, in spite of a few split notes from the horns, with especially pleasing woodwind runs. The third movement danced along with great dynamism and the interaction between wind and strings in the trio was a glorious moment.

Beethoven’s symphonies, revolutionary in their time, are to be coupled throughout the cycle with similarly radical works. The change from the niceties of the Beethoven to the idiosyncrasies of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was an immediate jolt, with the large percussion section brought to the front of the stage as equals to the piano. Bartók’s use of the piano as a percussive instrument is clear throughout the concerto, and the many exchanges (particularly in the second movement) between timpani, triangle, side drums, cymbals and piano were so unified that one might have thought the soloist and percussion section to be regular colleagues. András Schiff played with a power and precision that would have welcomed him into any percussion section, right from the early exchange of blows between soloist and orchestra. The Hallé were again impressive, with characterful woodwind interjections punctuating the music. The martial opening to the third movement gives way to comical trombone glissandi and shimmering displays of orchestral colour before further casual bickering between piano and percussion. The solo was occasionally allowed to be lost in the orchestral mêlée, though at little cost to the greater scheme of the piece. Elder masterminded the many time variations very well and provided continued drive to maintain the musical development, and the final notes of the piece had hardly ended before vigorous cheers from the large (and very young) audience.

The orchestra returned to the stage after the interval greatly reinforced, with a vast brass section, quintuple woodwinds and a string section that almost stretched into the wings. One player was missing, however: Katherine Baker, the Hallé’s Principal Flute, who remained just offstage to play Debussy’s darkly lyrical Syrinx for solo flute to a hall in near total darkness. It was an enchanting few minutes, and the solo’s descending chromatics painted a mysterious, sighing atmosphere. Baker’s control and shaping were excellent, and it was a stark contrast to the violent tendencies of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, completed in the same year as Debussy’s work. The huge forces drew every scrap of pagan ritual from the music in both aggressive ensemble and outlandish solos. Particularly fine solo playing came from the bass clarinet, trumpets and principal bassoon, and the collaborations between percussion and brass were violently powerful, interspersed with wild flourishes from the horns, who also pulled off some impressively rapid tonguing. Elder maintained meticulous detail, pulling quietly precise pizzicato passages from across the stage, and coaxed supremely visceral power from his players. He drove the narrative forward with architectural command and clear vision, creating a potent realisation of Stravinsky’s music.

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