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Arts: Classical: Aural flights of fantasy

Concertegbouw/Chailly Bridgewater Hall Manchester
MANCHESTER'S International Orchestra Series at the Bridgewater Hall set off to a flying start on Wednesday night when the Royal Concertegbouw Orchestra, under Riccardo Chailly, literally flew in for the night with a programme of works by Webern, Berg and Mahler. It was their first visit to the Hall, and mine too. The Bridgewater's smart, ship-like construction is next to the old Central Railway Station (now renovated into a smart exhibition hall), in a part of town that was for years derelict but that now serves as the city's cultural pride and joy.

The amplitude of the acoustic, its willingness to reveal detail without sacrificing an overall tonal blend, evidently pleased Chailly. I sat in on a rehearsal as soprano Ruth Ziesak toyed with the evocative poetry of Berg's Seven Early Songs, soaring high for Night (the first piece in the cycle) as a darkening veil of orchestration invited the listener to Drink of Solitude. Chailly would cue the opening bars of a song, attend to balance and tempo, then press on to the next.

I followed him back to his dressing room for a comment on the Hall when his mobile phone suddenly rang and he responded with a spontaneous "Una bella acustica". Question answered - though he later commented on how the Hall "embraces the music without unduly favouring individual sections of the orchestra". A score of Mahler Four - the concert's main item - lay open on his desk, and I asked him to locate the Symphony's pivotal climax. "Figure 12!" he exclaimed. "That wonderful moment in the slow movement when the Gates of Heaven fly open and the timpani thrash out the rhythmic pattern that opened the movement. But there is another wonderful moment, one that is even more sublime. It comes towards the end of the finale, at the point where the soprano sings of Saint Cecilia's court musicians and their angelic voices."

In the event, Chailly drew that most subtle portamento from the strings while the pure-voiced Ziezak conjured feelings of innocence and awe. Mahler's Fourth has been a Concertgebouw speciality ever since the composer himself shared a programme with the legendary Dutch maestro Willem Mengelberg and they both conducted the Symphony at the same concert - before and after the interval! Viewed overall, Chailly's performance was dark and emphatic, with rustic sounds from the woodwinds.

Before the interval, Mahler had already emerged as a palpable influence on Berg's songs, especially the fourth, A Crown of Dreams, while Strauss inhabited The Nightingale. In Lover's Ode, Berg's use of bassoon, trumpet and a hissing snare drum suggests decay among the fragrant roses. The concert had opened with Webern's pre-serial tone poem Im Sommerwind, which blossomed slowly among clarinet, solo violin and brush of cymbals.

This is truly Chailly's home territory: aural adventure with a surprise on virtually every page. You could tell he loved the piece and London audiences can witness it for themselves at the Royal Festival Hall on 22 September. The only difference is that Ziesak will be replaced by Barbara Bonney.

Rob Cowan

RFH booking no: 0171-960 4242