Hallé/Graf, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

No stardust for the Austrian conductor Hans Graf in a short residency with the Hallé this week. The baton which has been into space and back, and which he used for his recent UK performances with his Houston band of Holst's The Planets, was safely back in its box along with Nasa's multimedia images. But Graf still managed to work a little magic into Rachmaninov's rarely performed and somewhat impenetrable orchestra fantasy The Rock. The piece is supposedly based on a short story by Chekhov in which an old man tells a young girl of his tragic, solitary life. Rachmaninov handles his Tchaikovsky-shaded material expertly – long shapely lines, darkly introspective in a slightly disquieting atmosphere – but the burst of urgency at one point suggests that the ancient narrator had enjoyed at least one racy episode in an otherwise sombre life story. The Hallé's detailed approach under Graf had a clarity that never allowed its reading to sound contrived.

Graf also played Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony perfectly straight, treating it with a seriousness that was carried through from the searing slow movement to the ambiguous finale which Graf avoided exaggerating as either brassy optimism or bitter irony. The Hallé produced polished playing, in subtle woodwind solos, rhythmically taut string-playing and distinctively sonorous brass.

The young Chinese pianist Hong Xu made his acclaimed concerto debut in China with Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto at the age of 16. Last year, a decade on, he made his Hallé debut in Grieg. The orchestra invited him back and he seemed keen to prove that Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto is more than a lush showpiece. A moderate opening tempo demonstrated his imaginative scope and, in the slow movement, Hong Xu revealed a touchingly poetic streak. If the brilliance and relish with which he approached the fast passage-work of the finale successfully avoided any superficial virtuosity, it was distractingly accompanied by some over-intrusive foot-stamping, drawing attention to his elongated winklepickers. Pointy shoes are perhaps best left, along with the sharp suit, to the goths.

Further performances at Victoria Hall, Hanley (0844 871 7627) tonight; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161 907 9000) Sunday

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