Before the opening of the Hallé Orchestra's new Beethoven series, its chief executive, John Summers, and head of artistic planning, Geoffrey Owen, explained the thinking behind this challenging venture, which recalls Hans Richter's Manchester Beethoven extravaganza 100 years ago.
Beethoven's nine symphonies will be played in order – and the programmes contrived with music director, Sir Mark Elder, are boldly intriguing: Stravinsky (his violin concerto, long underrated); Sibelius rubbing shoulders with fellow-Finn Magnus Lindberg; John Adams's choral symphony Harmonium; Samuel Barber's piano concerto; Bartók, Berio, Shostakovich. All echo or counterpoise aspects of their daringly unorthodox Viennese predecessor.
The launch highlighted a groundbreaking Hallé strategy. Students fork out just £3 a concert. Five hundred young people thronged the foyer, to be faced with incredibly "difficult" Bartók (his acerbic First Piano Concerto) and savage Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring). They took it in their stride. Dissonance can sound strangely consonant today.
This was a magnificent concert, with Elder in charge. Beethoven's First Symphony contains some of the most dangerously exposed starts (and midway reprises) in the classical repertoire: the Hallé strings appeared unfazed. Parts of the first movement sounded over-loud, but not so the lapping second; and from the final two in the brilliant Haydn Symphony 105, Elder drew super results: buoyant, effervescent, cocky, dancing.
The Bartók, with András Schiff as thoughtful soloist, supplied the evening's revelation: pounding, percussive and avant-garde enough to shock the 1927 ISCM audience. Schiff contrived to make the solo part sing (a near-impossible feat), never more so than in the wonderful passage for side and snare drums – like a wonderful concerto for orchestra.
Stravinsky's rhythmically bombastic The Rite of Spring was a potent influence on Bartók. The sonorities – bass clarinets and tubas, five bassoons, a Wagnerian horn line-up – are unmatched even in that dazzling, exploratory prewar ferment. The footstamping, almost indecent sacrificial outrage was gripping, but Elder's true mark lay in the haunting stillness: shy hints of solo oboe, strings strangely suspended, or the way the Baltic folk-derived bassoon opening sublimely echoed Katherine Baker's magical flute solo in Debussy's Syrinx: Ovid's great god Pan, sighing in the wings.