Apart from its appearances at the Proms each summer, we get few chances to hear the Hallé in southern England. But the orchestra is now forging a relationship with Saffron Hall, and a full house for its latest visit there showed the popularity of the partnership.
The first half of Mark Elder’s programme was taken up with a single work, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, in which Pavel Kolesnikov was the soloist. Kolesnikov has built a reputation as a “poetic” pianist, an artist of great subtlety and nuance, but his account of what is one of the grandest and most demanding of concertos in the piano repertory turned out to be surprisingly straightforward.
The immense technical challenges of the piano writing were met almost casually, with strictly rationed rubato, the tone lean rather than fulsome and the long, sinuous phrases presented without unnecessary frills. With punctilious support from Elder and his orchestra, it was still an impressively coherent performance but never an overwhelming or particularly seductive one, and it needed a Chopin waltz, played as encore, to provide a reminder of what a delicately expressive pianist Kolesnikov can be.
The concerto was juxtaposed with a work completed just two years before it, Sibelius’s Third Symphony. But that was prefaced by Vltava, the best known of the six symphonic poems that make up Smetana’s Ma Vlast, which provided the Hallé’s woodwind, the flutes especially, an opportunity to show their suave fluency.
Elder is a fine Sibelius interpreter, and in a brief introduction to the symphony from the podium, he conveyed his enthusiasm for a work that he said was much less well known than it deserves. This performance was also a reminder that the Third is in many ways the pivotal work in Sibelius’s development as a symphonist, the score in which the mature composer begins to emerge and in which the last vestiges of his 19th-century models are set aside. Elder plotted that emergence superbly, right from the taut, stealthy opening to the glorious flowering of the main theme of the finale, with the horns whooping and the woodwind joyously carolling.