Rarely have I seen a conductor so excited! On completion of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Michael Seal looked like the cat that got the cream – and rightly so. He had just launched his audience into this concert with a terrific bang.

Peter Donohoe, © Sussie Ahlburg
Peter Donohoe,
© Sussie Ahlburg

Even before the first note sounded he had won us over with a charming introductory spiel explaining the concert to be a fundraiser for the very deserving CBSO Benevolent fund. This would help explain the unusually full auditorium, which created an excellent atmosphere, positively tingling with excitement. So, with the audience still giggling at his suitably snappy jokes, Seal threw the orchestra into this incredible piece by Shostakovich. Six minutes of flashy, crashy excitement that orchestra and conductor clearly relished. Seal was adamant that not a drop of effort be spared and encouraged the brass to really go for it in the full knowledge that Shostakovich, more than most composers, would thoroughly approve. The final moments saw Seal, legs apart, arms outstretched and shaking, indulgently holding the pose every textbook cover loves to silhouette. When he finally turned to accept his applause he was grinning from ear to ear – fabulous. The quick logistical change that followed (to accommodate the piano) was a welcome moment in which to find calm and cough and prepare for a long concerto.

As soon as Peter Donohoe took to the stage I felt confident this was to be a fine performance. He exuded confidence and he took to his task without fuss or bother – just another day at the office. His performance kept the audience transfixed for the entirety of Rachmaninov's long and in some respects cumbersome Piano Concerto no. 3. The main themes are marvellous but structurally this work is complex and as the piece develops the language takes increasingly extended tangents – at moments it left me bewildered. However, that each new idea strayed further from ‘home’ meant returning to recognised thematic material was all the sweeter for the adventures in between.

Donohoe’s emphatic action was a delight to watch as the music veered left and right through an extended cadenza played with the assurance of a master craftsmen chipping at a priceless material. The veneer of spontaneity never waned as gentle rubato played with the audience’s expectations. Considering the virtuosity and physical demands of this music, his assured performance was all the more remarkable. This really was an impressive solo performance supported by the on-song CBSO. The orchestra seemed to feed off the excellent atmosphere in the hall and deliver just a little extra under the now accommodating and sensitive baton of Seal.

It was the second half of Sibelius that had enticed me to this concert on a cold and rainy evening. My first introduction to Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 was at a concert six years ago; I instantly loved the piece. Since then I’ve regularly listened to the piece but only through speakers. It is a firm favourite of mine but for one reason or another I’ve not heard the piece live since my first introduction. Thus, you can imagine my excitement as the orchestra returned and the slightly thinner audience (it’s a curious phenomenon that a small percentage of the audience routinely leave after the first half) retook their seats. I enjoyed the performance a great deal. Michael Seal commanded the orchestra with precision and a mix of necessary restraint (as we’d seen in the Rachmaninov) and naughty exuberance (as throughout the Shostakovich). These well placed moments of enthusiasm were taken full advantage of by the brass whose expansive, sculpted lines gave us the Nordic flavour so imbued in the music but that is sometimes lost in performance. The final passage really was stunning; by degrees, conductor whipped the orchestra up and up towards the exalting, life-affirming closing harmonies. Barely had the orchestra finished when the audience took over with enthusiastic applause.

Listening to this symphony explains Sibelius’ enduring popularity as there really is something for everyone - wizened, cynical academic as well as newcomer to classical music. His music has such a distinctive flavour that was a treat to hear in a live acoustic – there is no replacing the act of sound physically produced in front of your very ears.

This concert left a smile on my face all evening. Apart from the great performances (once again bravo to Peter Donohoe) and great pieces, this was a programme of fascinating music arranged along the traditional lines of an overture, a concerto and a symphony – perfect proportions.

****1