It was with the music of Michael Tippett, his oratorio The Mask of Time, that Mark Elder chose to announce himself at his first Hallé appearance after being named music director in 2000. Five years on, with the conductor's relationship with the orchestra happily cemented and the Hallé sounding consistently on top form, the time was right for Elder to prove his Tippettian credentials again.
A weekend of Tippett events built around two ambitious concerts may not have quite filled the hall on both evenings but it was well worth doing - as high-quality and inspirational a celebration as any is likely to be in the composer's centenary year. And without recourse to glitzy guest soloists, the honours belong entirely to Elder and to the Hallé, undaunted by the challenges and vagaries of the four Tippett pieces featured.
The first concert opened with Beethoven who was included - along with Janacek - as one of the few creative spirits on a par with the 20th-century English composer in terms of radicalism and visionary ideals. But the curtain-raiser actually came second, in a thrilling account of the Ritual Dances from Tippett's first opera The Midsummer Marriage. As balletic aggressor hunted down its quarry - woodwind darting nimbly, brass lumbering menacingly - the rhythms of nature were in vivid evidence.
The Hallé Chorus - whose radiant tone reminded us that it too has recently reinvented itself - contributed fervently to the final dance, stirring in the operatic passion that Fire in Summer arouses. Distinguished by sweeping string sound and enchanted horn-calls, the airy orchestral textures of the Dances - alternately sinister and sensual - exuded sheer exuberance. This buoyant quality shone through too in the bustling outer movements of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the next evening, with Elder propelling the music of the outer movements furiously forwards as if the rhythms were running through his and the players' bloodstream.
Tippett's voice came across at its most mercurial and lyrically eloquent in the sublime heart of his Triple Concerto. Here Lyn Fletcher, Timothy Pooley and Rebecca Gilliver seemed to sculpt the delicate intricacies of the solo violin, viola and cello parts out of thin air.
But it was the remarkably penetrative reading of the notoriously tricky Second Symphony in the second concert that swept the listener away. Brilliantly executed, with the kind of risk-taking abandon that this almost improvisatory work demands, Elder's probing interpretation conveyed a strong sense of theatre. There was sensitivity as well as drama, poetry as well as athletic feats, and a real sense of how the design was inexorably unfolding amid a stunning display of orchestral virtuosity. It was, in a word, riveting.
The first concert, featuring Tippett's 'Ritual Dances' and the Triple Concerto, is on Radio 3 tomorrow at 7.30pmReuse content