There are as many conducting styles as there are conductors, but a particular category consists of those conductors who treat their art as a piece of choreography, making their whole body follow the ebb and flow of the music. Rodrigo Tomillo, who has taken over conducting duties at the Polish Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra because of injury to his former teacher, Wojciech Rajski, is firmly in this category. He looks like an easy and fun conductor to follow: there is a lot of body movement, which is crisp, direct and obviously in time with the music. He also conducts with a sparkle in his eye and an almost permanent smile on his face.

Elisabeth Leonskaja at Saanen © Miguel Bueno
Elisabeth Leonskaja at Saanen
© Miguel Bueno

The orchestra seemed to respond well: the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni was rendered in sprightly fashion, with a clean string sound, good togetherness, and the rising and falling minor scales particularly effective. As we moved onto the first movement of Haydn’s Symphony no. 101 in D major, it became clear that the orchestra was in very good shape indeed: balance between instruments was excellent and rhythms were forceful and accented. There was nothing classically ordinary about this performance: the orchestra were being pushed hard to deliver something with a bit of extra punch, and delivered Haydn’s Sturm und Drang well enough to prompt applause at the end of the first movement from an audience usually trained not to applaud until the end of the symphony.

The second movement, whose metronomic line gives the symphony its soubriquet The Clock, was accented with satisfying emphasis, and gave many individual instrumentalists the chance to shine. It was notable, however, that this was never at the expense of overall balance: my ear was particularly taken by a brass entry that felt perfectly weighted with the rest of the orchestra. There was effective execution of the point where the clock tick ends and the music changes into more forceful mood.

The orchestra were joined by Elisabeth Leonskaja for a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor. Eventually, that is. Chopin makes you wait a goodly time for the piano entry, with a robust orchestral opening which is surprisingly classical given the composer’s romantic credentials. But when the piano entry comes, it’s a telling one, and Leonskaja announced her presence with vigour. Her first notes set the character of the performance to come: Leonskaja has a remarkable ability to shape a phrase. Nothing is ever played with level dynamics; even an ornament of half a dozen notes will have the volume of each note shaped as it leads into its resolution. This imparts a level of delicious warmth to her playing which belies the technical sophistication underneath. Similarly, Leonskaja did not play with rubato – but subtle, barely audible, syncopations contributed to the warmth of the performance.

At least in private, we often talk about a concert being under-rehearsed. Now I know for a fact that for this concert, soloist and orchestra had never played this work together and had a bare couple of hours to rehearse – but this was hard to believe, so closely did they respond to each other’s nuances in a work where dynamics and tempi were anything but on the straight and narrow. The orchestration of this concerto is relatively straightforward, with individual wind solos adding colour to a background of strings, and many of those solo fragments were to be savoured: I particularly noted a lovely interchange between bassoon and piano in the first movement. And the end of the second movement, in which orchestra and piano swell to full force after the gentle opening, was magnificent.

Leonskaja was a close friend of festival director Thierry Scherz, who died last year. At the last of the generous curtain calls, she hushed the audience for a minute’s silence in his memory. It was a fitting end to an emotional evening’s music making.