Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
"I think that's a very good piece," Oliver Knussen remarked, referring to Anatoly Liadov's Baba Yaga, with which he had just opened his Hallé concert. "But it's also a very short one, so we'll play it again." And they did, with tremendous wit and elegance. A pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov inherited the latter's gift for sonority, and his brief depiction of the witch of Russian folklore flying through the country's forests in a pestle is one of the dazzling scores of the early 20th century.
Knussen followed it with two of his own works, The Way to Castle Yonder and the Horn Concerto, and the similarities with Liadov proved striking. Both composers emphasise music's ability to enchant. The Way to Castle Yonder distils the interludes from Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Knussen's second operatic collaboration with Maurice Sendak, and depicts the latter's dog on her way to animal heaven.
There's magic in the concerto, too, as the soloist guides us through a world rich in mystery, murmurs and transcendent beauty. Orchestrally, Knussen shares Liadov's fondness for a dark, burred string sound, darting woodwind and glittering percussion. Both performances were remarkable, the concerto, with Martin Owen as soloist, above all.
After the interval came another Russian fairytale in the form of Stravinsky's 1928 ballet The Fairy's Kiss. The score reworks themes by Tchaikovsky, another enchanter, whose barbed, woodwind-driven magic gradually invades Stravinsky's lean sonic universe. It's cruelly scored, pushing any orchestra that plays it to its limits, though the Hallé tackled it with great flair. The final scenes should perhaps be marginally slower than Knussen took them, but otherwise you couldn't fault the grace and dynamism of his conducting.
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