Halle Orchestra / Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

With the new year comes the first British orchestral premiere of 2004. Luke Bedford's Rode with Darkness, a BBC commission, is inspired by Satan's attempt to re-enter the garden of Eden but on Thursday, when the piece was first aired, we could as easily have been among Blake's dark satanic mills as Milton's Paradise Lost - from which Bedford drew the title of what is only his second work for full orchestra. In its shadowy landscape of mechanical industrial contours, Bedford's use of insistent rhythms, incandescent colours and an uneasy dynamism suggests that Satan's journey was not so much a return to a verdant garden of Eden as a cloven-hoofed trundle to a great smelting cathedral.

If this makes it sound like nothing more than a cacophony of hammers, saws and files, Rode with Darkness is far more subtle than that, at least until it gets up its full head of steam. After some violent eruptions of sonority and a climax of beating instrumental rhetoric, the music simply runs out, leaving a trail of tapping, eerily disembodied percussion. It's an extraordinarily accomplished and compact night journey, ten muscular minutes of imaginatively scored sounds that I'd love to have heard again that evening. But this was already a generously filled concert, opening with Elgar's Violin Concerto in B minor in which the soloist Isabelle van Keulen made her debut with what is Britain's longest-established symphony orchestra.

Van Keulen's sculpting of the "Windflower" theme - another of Elgar's little enigmas - was hauntingly beautiful yet without succumbing to the cloying braveness in adversity that can make the music seem uncomfortably over-egged with sentiment. Hers was a clear, considered interpretation, unaffected by any mannerisms. She turned each phrase in a way that caught the ear afresh, drawing the listener into rapt, delicate pianissimos, presented with a chamber-music like intimacy. This unusually direct, expressive approach was complemented by an overview and inner tension kept in perfect balance by Mark Elder and by the dramatic detail he applied to the orchestral canvas. The long cadenza of the sprawling finale took on a life of its own, van Heulen eloquently grabbing our attention and breathing an aching exquisiteness into the solo string writing.

Staying in B minor, Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony, which was first performed in 1939, found the Hallé on its best form, with impressively polished string playing and pungent wind and brass contributions. The instant rapport that Mark Elder enjoys with these musicians, his communicative conducting and his light touch in the two, vividly characterised, virtuosic scherzos conjured up something very special. And the way in which conductor and players went for broke in the final presto left the large audience gasping for breath.