Heinrich Schiff has become so closely associated with Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto that it was hard to believe he wasn't going to perform it himself. But no, the Hallé publicity was right – Schiff would conduct and his pupil and former BBC Young Musician of the Year, Natalie Clein, would grapple with this most intriguing of concertos.
She's a soloist who doesn't get in the way of the music. With an admirable directness and grave dignity, she approached the opening repeated Ds, whose hypnotic ticking gradually opens out to let in some spasmodic twitchings, some fleeting scurrying and some intermittent buzzing. Unfazed by the anarchic brass that bursts in upon this intimate exercise, Clein demonstrated the lyricism on which she's building a solid reputation, her instrument (a velvety-toned Strad on loan from Schiff himself) blossoming into a rich burnished voice. Threads became soaring melodies, fragments made textural sense. Whatever the scenario – political, emotional, philosophical, physical – this powerful music conjures up for each individual listener, it could not fail to make an impact. Not, at least, with such impassioned playing from Clein and the musicians of the Hallé Orchestra, nor with the space in which Schiff allowed the music to unfurl. The audience was mesmerised.
After the lofty grandeur of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, in which the bear-like Schiff cut a defiant path between triumphalism and turmoil, and the sometimes unbearable combativeness of Lutoslawski's concerto, Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony was not calculated to relieve the tension. Selecting a remarkably slow tempo for the opening introduction, Schiff paced the work with absolute conviction and control, always leaving room for the melancholy woodwind to breathe, for the strings to shimmer wistfully in the limping waltz, and for the brass to add dark, rasping density to the whole spellbinding picture.
Schiff's Pathétique paints a picture of tragic inevitability, made more bearable in this performance by some beautiful clarinet playing and dark-hued bassoon sounds, cutting through the suffocating intensity of Tchaikovsky's string-writing. The sinisterly swaggering third movement march, nimbly executed at high speed, whirled maniacally before shuddering to an abrupt stop.
Scarcely pausing for breath, Schiff sank into the closing Adagio's opening string lament. This bleak finale, sombre even in its half-consolatory second theme, offered no solution – just a glimpse into the depths of despair. I confess to agreeing with those who hear in this music Tchaikovsky's own resigned acceptance of his tragic fate.