The Hallè Orchestra, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 12th January 2019

A PACKED house eagerly awaited the entrance of Hallè music director Sir Mark Elder with Eric Lu, winner of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition. Lu’s success represented an encouraging change for “The Leeds” and not only because his name is instantly memorable. The insightful young American was awarded the coveted First Prize - not for bravura pianistic pyrotechnics - but because his performance of Beethoven’s lyrical Piano Concerto No 4 in G was pure, sublime poetry.

The 21-year-old’s triumphal return marked the first public outing of Leeds Town Hall’s brand new gleaming Steinway concert grand piano. Lu had chosen to play another of his repertory “staples” - Mozart’s delicately scored and deeply felt Concerto No 23 in A, K488. The central Adagio (in grief laden F sharp minor) is one of this composer’s most profound statements. Lu’s beauty of line was awe inspiring and his phrasing in this heart rending music created a magical stillness - in spite of some persistent audience fog-horn coughs. The elegant opening Allegro and the brilliance of the carefree Presto Finale revealed the underlying nuances of sadness. Sir Mark and the Hallè - with slimmed down vibrato-free strings built on just three double basses - were the most empathic of concerto partners.

The full orchestral panoply of 86 musicians assembled on stage for Shostakovich’s massive Symphony No 8 in C minor. This bleak and dramatic Second World War symphony was penned by a composer whose harrowing depictions of the human suffering caused by war are unmatched. Sir Mark’s deeply personal introductory remarks set the scene for a performance of blazing conviction. The depth of grief and desolation expressed by the Hallè’s eight cellos and six double basses at the opening of the half-hour long first movement was a metaphor for the entire performance. The savagery of war was portrayed as graphically as any film could achieve by the astringent brass, growling woodwind and a huge battery of percussion and drums. A mournful solo cor anglais and Shostakovich’s unique device of multiple-tonguing for the quartet of flutes which produces a spooky echo effect, left an indelible impression. Sir Mark slowly lowered his hands to prolong the stunned silence at the end of this searing symphonic experience, only for the spell to be prematurely broken by an over-enthusiastic audience member. Hey-ho.

Geoffrey Mogridge