French conductor Ludovic Morlot has been a frequent visitor to Manchester in recent months, having covered for some of Sir Mark Elder’s absences at the Hallé. This brilliantly conceived programme of French and Russian music was most notable for Steven Osborne's thrilling rendition of the Ravel Piano Concerto.

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne
© Benjamin Ealovega

Osborne's approach to the concerto was immediately lively and full of vivacious spark. The first movement at once hit an ambitious sense of drive, though the more mellow corners were also full of memorable surprises, most of all the wildly jazzy bassoon solo. There were also excellent solo contributions from stratospherically high horn and other principal woodwinds. There was a strong sense of chamber music, with the players closely bunched together on the stage and a reduced string section in force.

Osborne played the solo part with exquisite attention to delicacy, crisp articulation and careful phrasing. He found great clarity of texture even at the bottom of the keyboard. Subtle details emerged at every turn, with pauses and breaths in the piano line as though it were being sung in the slow movement, and a beautifully realised cor anglais solo. The finale charged to an energetically percussive conclusion, with Osborne as much a member of the percussion section as anybody else.

Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit did not quite hit the same high level of unrestrained energy. Milhaud’s wacky ballet describes a surreal scene at a prohibition era speakeasy: a boxer, a dwarf, a cross-dresser, a bookmaker and a punter walk into a bar and enjoy their illicit drinks until a policeman arrives and suddenly the scene becomes a milk bar. The policeman’s head, detached from its moorings by an overhead fan, is used by a prostitute for a surreal parody on Strauss’ Salome. The drinkers leave and the policeman is left to pick up the bar tab. There was an infectious lilt to the Brazilian rhythms here, but there was a sense that some degree of South American fervour was being held in reserve, the music at times feeling safely benign rather than tumultuous. Some energetic horn semiquavers brought about a touch more excitement later on.

Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony was approached on a grand scale. The spacious opening and noisy end to the first movement and the terrifying climax of the third movement were inescapably bleak. The second movement set off like a rocket, with string semiquavers crisply articulated right to the very back of the sections. The terse conspiratorial woodwind lines gave way to a central triple time passage of breathless exhilaration. The finale embraced its grotesque circus atmosphere, the last pages dashing ahead perilously close to disaster.

****1