That the BBC Philharmonic opened their concert evening in Leeds with a curtain lifter such as the overture to Hector Berlioz' opera Benvenuto Cellini (1834–37) was fitting in light of the spectacle that was to take place later. Simon Wright, musical director of Leeds Festival Choir, skillfully led the orchestra through this dramatic piece that features all the theatrical gestures expected from and cherished in an opera.

David Wilson-Johnson © Annelies van der Vecht
David Wilson-Johnson
© Annelies van der Vecht

With its thrilling yet delightful character the second piece on the programme, Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, tied in excellently with Berlioz' enchanting tone. In the role of the soloist, Peter Donohoe, highly appreciated in the UK and beyond, took the place of the Swiss-Chinese young talent Louis Schwizgebel who had to cancel due to an injury. After the opening where the pianist accompanied the solo piccolo in a Liszt-like manner with high and fast arpeggios, a rhythmically vigorous, jazz-inspired soundscape developed. It was contrasted with the lyrical and dreamy, almost spherical tone Ravel is famous for, not unlike the one in his suite Ma mère l'Oye (which was performed in Leeds only last month by the Orchestra of Opera North).

Donohoe always set the right tone, sometimes – most befittingly – with a wink. Although created at the same time, the G major Concerto is less severe than the Concerto in D major (for the left hand). It was originally conceived by Ravel as a divertissement, i.e. a piece of light, entertaining music. After a wonderfully played cadenza, the buoyant rhythms concluded this high-speed-movement, the challenges of which were not always met by the orchestra as thoroughly as possible.

The second movement is inspired by the Larghetto from Mozart's Clarinet Quintet and an atmosphere of Mozartian delicacy, simplicity and beauty prevailed, convincingly communicated by Donohoe. Changing between impressionistic and jazz sounds, and with “false notes” dispersed in a classical tonal context, the finale revealed itself as an imposing document of the early 1930s that continues to fascinate today's audiences. After making a jolly remark about the Wars of the Roses – with the orchestra, conductor and soloist all hailing from Lancashire – Donohoe sat down at the piano together with Wright and, as an encore, they performed the last piece from the piano version of Ma mère l'Oye.

Ravel's most popular work, the Bolero from 1928, followed immediately – a piece about which the composer once noted that it was “no music” at all. What he meant was that there is no thematic development or harmonic modulation in a classical sense, but “only” – and this is his masterstroke – changes in secondary musical parameters like orchestration, timbre and dynamics. As is known, the work consists of a simple varied melody and an ostinato rhythm which was played quite loudly from the start so that the unfolding crescendo was not as grand as it has been heard before. Still, after this rigorous and ecstatic music, the audience in a packed Town Hall was thrilled.

The unusual dramaturgy of playing three pieces before the interval was due to the weight of William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast that took up the second half of the evening. It was definitely the highlight of the concert, not only in terms of quantity – one large orchestra, two choirs, two brass bands (situated behind the choirs) and a baritone – but first and foremost in respect of Walton's great music that was performed by the BBC Philharmonic, the Leeds Festival and the Leeds Philharmonic Choir with a compelling enthusiasm. Could it be that the musicians felt a special attachment to the cantata since it was premiered on 8 October 1931 in this very Town Hall by the Leeds Festival Choir?

The underlying story of the work is known from the Bible. While the Jews endure their exile in Babylon, King Belshazzar hosts a great feast during which he drinks from the Jews' holy vessels to his God of Gold. This sacrilege is followed by the mysterious death of the Babylonian king. Walton depicted the sorrows of the captives as well as the decadence of Babylonian society with a tremendous musical vividness. As the narrator, baritone David Wilson-Johnson delivered a performance to remember. His recitatives were of an utmost intensity, charismatic and gripping alike. When the king was slain and the Jews were freed, the two choirs and the orchestra united in a final grandiose apotheosis that outshone the musical climax of the Bolero by far.