Lohengrin – Preludes to Acts I & III
Oboe Concerto in C, K314
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Stéphane Rancourt (oboe)
Reviewed by: Helen Pearce
Reviewed: 24 March, 2010
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Celebrated violinist Nikolaj Znaider swapped bow for baton to make his UK conducting debut with Manchester’s Hallé. The crowd-pleasing programme began with the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, and its radiant, seemingly timeless violin lines. Leaving neither players nor conductor with room to hide, these were smoothly negotiated after a slightly tentative beginning. Znaider took no time before launching into the Prelude to Act Three, in which Wagner’s jubilant evocation of wedding preparations instantly expelled the ethereal atmosphere. The soaring main theme was balanced by sprightly woodwind solos in the central section. Superb playing in the brass boded well for those eagerly awaiting the announcement of Tchaikovsky’s fate motif; the kernel of the Fourth Symphony.
First, though, Mozart’s Oboe Concerto was performed by the Halle’s principal Stéphane Rancourt. Showcasing infallible tuning and impressive technique, especially during some devilish cadenzas, Rancourt never seemed at risk of coming off the rails; and with an instrument as temperamental as the oboe, this is no mean achievement. Whilst such consistency makes Rancourt invaluable as an orchestral player, however, it loomed as a weakness in his solo performance. At times, we were left craving the extremes of contrast which ensure that a secure performance does not become a bland one.
Znaider’s conducting – unobtrusive, if unremarkable, so far – came to life in the Tchaikovsky in which he appeared determined to demonstrate that this was a score he knew like the back of his hand. Indeed, it was the back of his hands that the audience saw plenty of, as Znaider vigorously led the Hallé through Tchaikovsky’s tumultuous battle with fate. This performance found all sections of the Hallé on fine form. Oboist Hugh McKenna beautifully initiated the nostalgic mood that reigns in the second movement. The playful pizzicato theme of the scherzo was taken at a steady tempo which never quite allowed this movement to catch fire. If it evokes, as Tchaikovsky suggested, the “fugitive images that pass through one’s mind when one has had a little wine to drink and is feeling the first effects of intoxication”, then Znaider’s protagonist was rather too good at holding his liquor. There were no such problems in the finale, which was ablaze with energy from its exuberant opening bars. And yet, despite an undeniably enjoyable and assured concert, the feeling lingered that this first-rate orchestra was rarely required to leave its comfort zone.
- Concert also played on March 25 & 28