What a concert – the programme and the musicans were sublime. This time, Colston Hall got it spot on with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Seeing all of the credits for the orchestra in the back of the programme prepared me for a big and bold sound that was just short of 100 musicians. Each and every one of them contributed to a fantastic sound under the baton of Jacek Kaspszyk.

Jacek Kaspszyk © Sophie Wright
Jacek Kaspszyk
© Sophie Wright

What was amazing about the PNRSO was that the sound balance between the different sections was perfect. I was a little more dubious when the piano came out for the Shostakovich Piano Concerto no. 2 in F, as there was a significant reshuffle, but it still could not be faulted. This may be due to them being a radio orchestra, but all of the focus was on the sound rather than being showy, and the result was magical. There are usually one or two instruments in a group this large that play out of turn, but no egos reached out from within the orchestra. I was worried that the trumpet fanfare that sounds throught the “Trauermarsch” first movement of the Mahler Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor might offset the balance, but the dynamics were just right.

In the Adagietto of the Mahler, the beautiful harp melody that is often missed in the jumble of sounds was lifted out, for one of the best moments of the second half of the concert. This half had a lot to live up to after the first, but the Mahler was such a huge piece that the programme worked. It was during this second half that I realised that Mahler has to be performed by an orchestra of this size, or the full scale of the work is missed.

As a conductor, Kaspszyk is slender yet full of presence and authority. His cool and calm approach to conducting was different to the “jump and flail” approach that I would have expected for such a large orchestra. His solid stance appeared to make the orchestra feel more grounded and more receptive to each of his slight movements. I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to communicate with Noriko Ogawa as the lid of the Steinway was rather imposing on the stage, in an already very crowded space. Kaspszyk looked round for Ogawa’s major entrances and other than that, first violist Piotr Tarcholik demonstrated how leading an orchestra should work – giving great attention to both conductor and soloist alike.

The first half of the concert was full of catchy rhythms and memorable themes, with some emotion splashed in between, providing the balance. Bernstein’s overture to Candide had a similar upbeat feel to the first and third movements of the Shostakovich concerto. Pianist Noriko Ogawa showed incredible strength and stamina for the duration of the concerto, which is by no means an easy piece for the solist. When Ogawa played the drum-like rhythms of the opening, you could see the pressure on the keys was coming from her shoulders and upper torso strength, but she never looked too tense. The sound result was a very natural hammering that didn't sound forced. This converted to a wonderfully soft hand for the middle movement. Three rounds of applause later, she tirelessly reappeared in the interval to sell and sign CDs next to a cardboard sign reading “Noriko’s Stall” – to a massive response.

The PNRSO chose to play a Polish piece as well. Krzysztof Pendericki wrote his Chaconne in 2005 with the subtitle “in memoria Giovanni Paolo II” – in memory of Pope John Paul II. The opening melody unravels and moves around the different string sections, developing in closely derived variations, some making the main theme into a mere whisper and others blurting it out. One of the highlights of the piece was a variation where the violins played loud vibrato notes accompanied by deep, heavy chords from the double bass section. The way this was performed with such a contrast was so haunting it sent shivers down the spine.

Kaspszyk’s history of international work and mastery of the orchestra is simply a must-see in concert. The combination of orchestra, conductor and soloist was thrilling to witness live. This is easily the best orchestral concert that I have attended. To top it off, the fifth time Kaspszyk entered on stage to shouts of “bravo” and “more” he sat the orchestra down to perform an encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 1 – truly fantastic.