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Schiff, Baker, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Schiff, Baker, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Schiff, Baker, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Sir Mark Elder embarks on a Beethoven cycle in the crowded company of Bartók, Stravinsky and Debussy

Sir Mark Elder is embarking on the Hallé's first Beethoven cycle in 50 yearsSimon Dodd

The objective: Beethoven’s symphonies. All of them. In numerical order, one after the other. Not only that, but a “powerful” work written in the last century to go with each one. That is Sir Mark Elder’s self-imposed mission for his 12th season with the Hallé. He has described it as the orchestra’s “first Beethoven cycle of the 21st century”. Is that a veiled promise of others to come? Perhaps in another 50 years, which is when the Hallé last tackled the cycle.

Not that Elder will conduct all the symphonies. He is directing five, but vacating the rostrum for Markus Stenz, now in his third season as principal guest conductor, Lothar Koenigs (a Manchester newcomer), Edward Gardner and, for the Ninth next May, Nikolaj Znaider.

The “modern” works he chose to accompany Beethoven’s First were The Rite of Spring, Bartók's Piano Concerto No 1 performed by András Schiff, and Debussy’s Syrinx, featuring the Hallé's principal flautist, Katherine Baker. Can one have too much of a good thing?

Elder shaped the work with economy, but building to that sparkling, dancing, rising finish

Elder jumped straight in with the symphony, which featured in Charles Hallé’s very first concert in January 1858. The programme advises that “it was applauded vehemently by a meagre audience”. No meagre audience this time. Using a pared-down orchestra of around 50, Elder went for the light and lilting touch, taking it slowly, ploddingly even, after those two opening notes. As he got up to speed, he reminded us what a tease the symphony is, so that when we came to the finale we were hardly prepared by the mock-tentative Adagio for the non-stop energy of the Allegro, even though the signs had been there throughout.

Elder shaped the work with economy, but building to that sparkling, dancing, rising finish. His was an alert and well-considered account of the piece, even though the orchestra did not have the advantage of an overture to warm them up. Perhaps the audience felt the same. Every pause between movements unleashed a coughing chorus, as if the cold season had come early to Manchester. Perhaps everyone had just had their flu jabs.

Schiff, gnome-like, offered a foretaste of the celebrity Bartók series he will be giving at Carnegie Hall at the end of the month. Having played with Elder and the Hallé at the Proms, he knew that he was in trusted company, which must be reassuring in a  piece as difficult as the First Piano Concerto, which depends so much on the near warfare between soloist and orchestra.

What strikes one about his astonishing playing is his ability to change gear, to put the brakes on at telling moments before suddenly letting go. It becomes spellbinding, as at times the piano makes as if to run away before being pinned back. Clearly Schiff’s feeling for his fellow Hungarian is heartfelt. He brings to his playing all the rhythmic vitality and, at the same time, control that the composer demands. We know about the dissonances and the aim to make the piano percussive and the percussion pianistic as they sit side by side, but what Schiff did is to emphasise the insistent ritualistic beat. And then he finally broke loose into the glitteringly fast and furious finish. An exceptional performance.

At that interval I could have gone home well satisfied. Enough is enough. But it would have been a mistake, because the Stravinsky proved to be the coup de grâce, neatly led into by the three-minute unaccompanied flute solo that is Debussy’s Syrinx, written at the same time as The Rite of Spring. This was intelligent programming, since tribalism and primitivism, sounds of Arabia and Africa linked the Bartók, Debussy and Stravinsky pieces. But I doubted the decision to have flautist Katherine Baker play Syrinx off stage whilst Elder and the now-enlarged orchestra sat still and silent on stage. Was it for dramatic effect? It didn’t work. Now with more than 100 musicians, Elder was in his element in The Rite and produced a performance of great sensitivity and panache, from the folksy melodic to the tribally explosive.

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