The Hallé brought an odd mix of items to Sheffield, but an intriguing one. Not that beginning a concert with Brahms’ Haydn Variations is anything unusual; nor is following it with a piano concerto and ending with a symphony. It was the character of the pieces and the mix of composers that gave the sense of anticipation.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Eva Vermandel
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Eva Vermandel

Many words have been wasted on whether the theme Brahms used was by Haydn – it probably wasn’t, but Haydn would no doubt have been proud to have his name attached to such a skilfully crafted set of variations, and both composers would have enjoyed Johannes Debus’ interpretation. The Hallé were disciplined and restrained, yet managed to bring out the best of the piece’s lyrical side, which is hardly surprising; Debus has conducted operas all around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and is Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company. Brahms never splashes colour about for its own sake, but he does provide full-throated endings, and Debus let the orchestra loose for the final stirring restatement of the theme.

The global list of piano competitions continues to expand, and should reach three figures in the next twenty years. That sounds rather dismissive of Pavel Kolesnikov’s achievement in winning one of them, but in 2012 he was only in his very early twenties, and it was a big one – the Honens, with its six figure prize. It’s not the winning, but the taking part – no that’s wrong; it’s not the winning, but how you deal with the career progression afterwards. Since winning, Kolesnikov has performed at many of the top venues, with many of the top orchestras; even better, for those of us in the UK, he was taken on as a BBC New Generation Artist in 2014 and has made London his base.

However, critical reception here hasn’t been universally flattering, but his performance of Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 22 in E flat major was one to be savoured. The concerto is often described as ‘sunny’ and Kolesnikov’s playing was disciplined but dazzling in the first movement. The slow movement needs to be listened to carefully to appreciate the reflective melancholy. Here Kolesnikov was in his element and showed, with refined dynamics, his thoughtful playing. He then galloped off into the finale without a care in the world.

Interestingly, all the physical and emotional discipline was then thrown off in a vision of the world being wrecked – the first movement of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. Colour splashed about for its own sake? Everything is splashed about here. Nielsen seems to make the orchestra work against itself – the strings lay out a Scandi noir backdrop with constant semiquavers; the woodwinds issue a repetitive warning; the brass are confident, but the snare drums enters and tries to wreck everything. It very nearly succeeds – and without a top orchestra and conductor it can. The clash of rhythms can seriously confuse the listener, but Debus and the Hallé brought order through the chaos, with their new principal clarinettist Sergio Castelló López relegating the drum to pianissimo tapping, and transforming the worried woodwind theme with peaceful glowing colours.

There are only two movements, and the second you could say is based on a more normal triumph-through-adversity model. Debus’ careful handling of the orchestral balance and discipline, particularly in the tricky rhythms of the fugato passages, led to the fully justified triumphant ending.

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