Bach with the Hallé Orchestra, Manchester

2006-10-02 / The Times, London / Hilary Finch

The start of a major orchestral season: no conductor, and only a handful of players. What was this? Well, Mark Elder knows the power of a delayed entry, and he took a back seat for the first half of the evening, handing it over to a pianist, a flautist, a fiddler and a clutch of chamber musicians — for a Brandenburg Concerto.

But not before he had made two announcements. First, that the concert was to be dedicated to the memory of John MacMurray, the Hallé’s principal trumpet, who died in August. And second, to welcome the pianist Angela Hewitt, who, just that afternoon, had received the accolade of Artist of the Year at the Gramophone Awards.

So there was quite a sense of occasion when Hewitt, Katherine Baker (flute) and Paul Barritt (violin) strode on stage, and the Bach began. Hewitt’s slight, glittering green figure raised both arms, like an exquisite dragonfly poised for flight — and the music levitated into being. With mesmerising finesse, Hewitt’s brain and fingers threaded their way through the trills and modulations of flute and violin. And then she’d bend low, smiling, over the keyboard, as though communicating with Bach’s innermost spirit — and proving, in her cadenza, that she was in vibrant touch with his entire nerve system.

The sense of close communion with Bach’s secret thoughts that characterised this performance must have resembled the state in which Mahler found himself as he began to compose his Fifth Symphony. His close study of Bach was revealed in the Hallé’s brilliantly articulated playing of the music’s polyphony. But what was truly remarkable about this performance was its sense of unfettered song.

Elder understands every inflection of this music’s language, every intake of breath, relating it instinctively to its Austrian roots. And he reminded us, in the slender, lissom melody of the slow movement, that Mahler had also been studying Schumann’s songs at this time. The Adagietto grew out of and returned into dream, passing as swiftly and as elusively as our experience of this exceptional performance of the symphony as a whole.