Classical Chicago SO / BBC Phil Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra stormed Manchester's new Bridgewater Hall on Saturday night and stopped the chorus of disapproval in its tracks. There were tributes to both Sir Johns - Barbirolli and Falstaff - in the shape of Elgar's richly pictorial orchestral pageant. Daniel Barenboim presided over that like a seasoned actor-manager who's played all the parts himself many times before. From another bygone age came a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth that fire-blasted familiarity and gave us something new to shout about. The hall opened to it, the kind of work-out it had been waiting for all week.

Early reviews of the Halle's opening concerts complained of poor definition, booming bass, muddled textures. From a seat in the centre-circle, with Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony working the room, such complaints were a fiction. First impressions did confirm a fierceness, a steeliness in the upper partials, a certain sterility about the ambience in general. It isn't the most welcoming of acoustics. Yet. But before the acousticians start tinkering, let's not forget that new halls, like new instruments (new anything), need to be played in, lived in, loved in. At the close of Barenboim's concert, a sustained G natural in the violins announced the first encore, and, barely perceptible at first, the familiar strains of "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations began warming the hall. The collective sigh of recognition and appreciation might have been stage- managed. Barbirolli was definitely there in spirit. The Halle, currently shrinking from the musical remoteness of its latest musical director, Kent Nagano, must be wondering where all that generosity of spirit went.

The BBC Philharmonic has it in spades in the person of Yan Pascal Tortelier. If anyone was going to work the room after Chicago, he was the man. Mind you, Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts doesn't so much work a room as rearrange it. With 50 brass (much of it amassed in four separate groups), 16 timpani, choruses and orchestra totalling some 500 performers, Bridgewater needed to prove accommodating in every sense. It did. Notwithstanding its somewhat unforgiving brilliance at the top, even the tumultuous summons of the "Tuba mirum" and "Lacrymosa" - the latter swinging like a mighty pendulum towards the fateful hour of judgement - were well within the bounds of saturation, the combined choruses of Chester, Huddersfield, Leeds and Liverpool hurling out Berlioz's peculiar brand of 19th-century plainchant in that grand north-country tradition of apocalypse now, refinement later. And that's just what the piece needs. This is the still, small voice of the agnostic, his eyes widening at the imagined splendour of the godhead. Simple truths assume a visionary gleam, a starry theatricality. Tortelier was magnificently in control of his far-flung constellations. He achieved stasis and movement and implacability in equal measure. And the hall didn't fight him.

PS: on Saturday, Barenboim officially christened the "Barbirolli Room". So, for those of us who think they've got the name wrong, at least one corner of Bridgewater Hall is forever Barbirolli.

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