The Sixteen, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

After hosting more than 30 long nights of festive concerts of one type or another, the Bridgewater Hall opened its spring season with Ravel, Canteloube and Fauré, presented with plenty of French polish. It's really far too early in the year to be writing this, but this was a concert that is likely to remain a highlight of 2005. I strongly recommend you tune in when Radio 3 gets round to broadcasting it.

Whatever it was that attracted a capacity audience - Harry Christophers' customarily refined interpretations with The Sixteen or the consistent excellence of the BBC Philharmonic - they couldn't fail to have been captivated by Susan Bullock's radiant characterisation of six of Canteloube's colourful arrangements of folk songs from the Auvergne. Never over-sentimental, Bullock was engagingly responsive to the emotions and moods evoked by these shepherds in the songs they sang to each other across mountain and river as they tended their sheep deep in the Cantal countryside. In the best-known piece, "Bailèro", the soloist's seamless unfurling of its gentle melody was given piquant colouring by the piping woodwind of the BBC Philharmonic. With the merest nod and wink she was flirtatious in the catchy "Tchut, tchut" and ravishingly dreamy in the lullaby "Brezairola". She enlivened the spun-out rustic tale of the soldier who plans to shoot the old husband of the girl he fancies and, between the pawky verses of "Malurous qu'o uno fenno", the orchestra added its own imaginatively interpretative touches to the rugged peasant landscape.

Christophers had earlier drawn period atmosphere and Gallic charm as well as precise articulation from the orchestra in music from Ravel's fairy-tale ballet, Ma mère l'Oye. Balanced between affection and affectation, this performance glittered beguilingly in its contrasts of dynamic and texture, light and shade. From elfin horn fanfares to tinkling celeste, with Beauty on a mellifluous clarinet and her Beast on a gawky double-bassoon, Christophers guided us through fluttering forests of magical creatures. Only towards the end did he introduce the merest hint of menace into this fantasy world when the strings, at a particularly slow tempo, beckoned us into a slightly sinister "Jardin féerique".

In a gravely eloquent reading of Fauré's Requiem, the singers of the Sixteen (or Two Dozen, in this case) evoked an unearthly expressiveness (strictly within the Fauréan bounds of discretion, reticence and restraint), while the orchestra provided unobtrusive but sterling support. Libby Crabtree brought a crystalline clarity to the solo "Pie Jesu" and both choir and orchestra displayed the elegance of execution for which they are admired. "People play me as if the shutters were drawn," Fauré once said; here it was as if we had stumbled upon some private memorial, and caught a haunting glimpse of paradise.