The Hallé – at Bridgewater Hall for only their fourth performance to live audiences in 15 months – are back in business, thanks in part to a shiny new stage extension to help with social distancing. The extra pontoon envelops the stalls, shrinking the auditorium and bringing the music so close you could reach out and grab it. After so long away, that intimacy is no bad thing.
The spectacle is reminiscent of the orchestra’s enormous semi-staged Wagner performances – but with half the players removed. The Siegfried Idyll seemed a perfect opener, although this is Wagner far removed from the lavishly expansive music-dramas staged in recent years. A birthday gift for his wife Cosima, the origins of Wagner’s Idyll have an unlikely connection with Manchester, with future Hallé music director Hans Richter learning the trumpet especially for the Christmas Day premiere in 1870. But at the helm here was the young Norwegian conductor Tabita Berglund, whose unfussy interpretation held poise and vigour. Moments of looping string indulgence were quickly glossed over in favour of forward momentum, setting the tone for an evening of exhilarating performances.
While Wagner’s expansive lines might have benefited from the extra space, standing two metres apart is much less conducive to dancing an Argentine tango (Osvaldo Golijov’s Piazzolla tribute Last Round requires the strings to stand to create a visual melee of bowstrokes.) Berglund’s taut, batonless gestures weren’t quite enough to get the Hallé strings dancing through the squealing cries and razor-sharp rhythms of Golijov’s opening. As the communication problems settled, the programme’s unifying energy slowly emerged. Shards of anguished sound bounced around the ensemble, morphing into wails reduced to a whimper at a stunning close.
Berglund, the new principal guest conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony, is making a name for herself internationally. This is her second appearance with the Hallé, and her smiling warmth matched the Idyll’s radiance perfectly. The boundless energy that underpins her approach was best suited to the Beethoven that closed the concert. Playing under Berglund is a workout – the third movement of the Seventh Symphony was taken at breakneck speed, and there were moments of dagger-like insistence through the outer movements. There was room for a rich Allegretto, too, in as athletic a Seventh as you’ll hear, leaving an appreciative if reduced Manchester audience invigorated.
• The concert will be available to watch on demand (£) from 24 June to 24 September.