Markus Stenz’s concert series as Principal Guest Conductor of the Hallé continued with an original and brilliantly conceived programme of Berio, Mendelssohn and Mahler, culminating in a powerhouse performance of the latter’s First Symphony.

Markus Stenz © Catrin Moritz
Markus Stenz
© Catrin Moritz

The core central European repertoire is what Stenz has always done best with the Hallé. In memorable performances of the likes of Beethoven, Bruckner, Strauss and Mahler, he has drawn from the orchestra a rich, convincingly Germanic sound. The great success of the opening work of tonight’s performance, a departure from this tradition, was hence a pleasant surprise. Luciano Berio’s 1975 reworking of Boccherini’s Quattro version originali, like the first movement of Mahler 1, has strong military influences. The soft beginning and end are for side drum duo alone, carried off with exquisite control at tiny dynamics tonight, while the central tutti gives a strong impression of a military march-past. The pianissimo muted trumpets showed similar technical facility. An admirable balance between melodic expressivity and absolutely crisp pulse was achieved by Stenz, who also did a fine job of balancing the complex counterpoint of the textures.

Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma joined the orchestra for a mature reading of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, conceived with great musicality and an unfailingly silky tone. Her immersion in the music was quite obvious in her wanderings around the front of the stage between solo passages, head bowed, occasionally nodding along to the orchestra. Neither her playing nor that of the orchestra was ever overly dark; the bleaker corners were given little chance to set in, and the slow movement was plainly nostalgic rather than wistful or excessively sentimental. Stenz held relatively brisk tempi throughout the latter two movements, giving the second a pleasing lilt and the finale a thrilling vivacity. Lamsma’s superbly executed delicate touch gave light to all the intricacies of her part while maintaining a strong sense of forward momentum.

The Mahler was born of a completely secure long-vision for the work, often welcoming extremes of tempo and dynamics but always fitting in with the coherent greater architecture. The dewy opening bars took a moment to settle but set the tone for a vividly natural first movement. The first theme, that of the Wayfarer from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, was beautifully soft, more murmured than sung, in its initial appearances. It was dreamy and richly characterised, as was the darkly brooding development passage. The climax of the movement rose from an almighty ritardando and exploded into the hall with considerable force, at a dashing tempo which posed little threat to the accuracy of the playing. The Ländler was similarly quick, and as physically muscular as I have heard it thanks to the exertions of the lower strings. The horns showed some of the superb form which they carried through the whole symphony, spitting out their stopped quavers with gusto and playing with fine ensemble as a section.

Roberto Carrillo-Garcia’s double bass solo, played with great beauty of tone, was deeply moving in its Frère Jacques tune. The harsh woodwind interjections were starkly opposed to this, as were the enthusiastically played Klezmer passages. Stenz’s close control of tempo was well followed and articulated with pleasing unity. The brief major-key interlude was almost as tragic, such was the hushed beauty of the string and flute playing.

The finale’s opening screamed out wildly, and went off like a rocket thereafter. It was hellish, tortured stuff, supported by powerful and completely secure brass and percussion. The slower passages were given a rich legato and great sense of freedom in the string phrasing. When it came at the end of a long, hard struggle, the coda once again exploded in volume and tempo. The crash cymbals were trebled for reinforcement, and the horns leapt to their feet as instructed. Stenz, too, leapt around the rostrum, conducting with enormous energy to make for a thrilling climax to the symphony. It made perfect sense musically, and earned him a long ovation.