Hallé/Berglund, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

On the strength of the Nocturne from his suite King Christian II, and the Six Humoresques for violin and orchestra, Sibelius handled small forms with delicacy and grace - qualities not necessarily associated with a heavyweight symphonist. Genial, even suave, the Nocturne's expansive waltz was warmly handled by Paavo Berglund and the Hallé. The Hallé's leader Lyn Fletcher was the soloist in the Humoresques: beautiful but curious miniatures that bubble and froth on the surface but have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Elfin, shimmering and silky by turns, Fletcher's playing was deliciously characterised, if occasionally it could have been a little gutsier.

By common consent, Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony is a much more digestible work than the famous "Leningrad", which preceded it. But, like anything written on such a massive scale, it needs to be carefully paced and controlled, and on this point Berglund was extremely convincing. Losses in other areas, notably the pedestrian speed of the normally ferocious second scherzo, could be justified by not having the usual painful change of gear with the climactic transition to the largo. Yet what Berglund gained here in smoothness he lost in impact and intensity. Even the grotesque trumpet solo in this movement was ironed out to within an inch of its life, sounding glossily insinuating rather than malignant. And though hearing the scherzo slip into the largo so easily was aesthetically pleasing, it wasn't moving - and this crucial turning point in the symphony is intended to be shattering.

It was not until the finale that the orchestra seemed comfortable with Berglund's restraint, and once that point had been reached, the performance began to feel real. Berglund smoothed over the desolate tone of the ending, but its C-major peace was still a troubled one.

Pauline Fairclough

The GuardianTramp

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