HallÉ/Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Reviewed by Lynne Walker
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This season the Hallé is celebrating its first decade under Mark Elder, now committed as Music Director until at least 2015. Older members of the audience talk about a renewal of the "glory days", when John Barbirolli was in his prime and the Hallé's reputation was unassailable. The rest of us, rather less sentimentally, enjoy an orchestra currently at the top of its game, under a conductor who clearly intends to continue to make sparks fly at every opportunity.

A listings magazine actually described this Hallé concert as "a rather unlikely combination". In fact – and possibly you had to be there to appreciate the fact – it was a cogent piece of programme planning, finely nuanced in execution. Elder and the Hallé strings proved themselves touchingly responsive to the mercurial wit and dark poignancy of Britten's early Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Whether strumming their instruments like guitars in the exhilarating "Aria Italiana", adding a savage bite to "Wiener Waltz", or sinking into the dusky, veiled tone of the Mahlerian finale, they combined propulsive excitement with a vein of wistfulness.

If the Variations pre-echo so much of Britten's later works – from the operas to the solo instrumental pieces – Richard Strauss's autumnal Second Horn Concerto feels like a summing up of a vast musical life. In a sensational performance by Richard Watkins – spanning burnished intimacy and huntsman heroics, twilit murmurings and muscular jocularity – Strauss's back catalogue was laid bare. To fragments of opera, snatches of tone poems and whispers of songs, Elder and the orchestra provided an illuminating accompaniment.

The Hallé has enjoyed acclaim for its recording of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony – another work packed with underlying references – made in the 1990s under its former principal conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Rightly, Elder went his own way, screwing up the dramatic tension and bringing to the surface some brilliantly articulated insights. His brand of forthright theatricality surfaced in a sense of urgency sustained by well-judged tempos, finely graded dynamics and precisely balanced textures. It's a riveting work which, with every detail so clearly projected and keenly played, and with some penetrating solo contributions from within the orchestra, made for a searing experience.

Broadcast on 28 September 7pm, Radio 3