The Bridgewater Hall’s fascinating Ravel and Rachmaninov piano festival came to a heady close with a thrilling programme of works performed by an esteemed quartet of soloists. One of the most intriguing things with such a programme was the sharp relief thrown onto different pianists’ approaches to these works, both microscopically in terms of touch, and more broadly in the architecture of each piece. Opening the batting was Noriko Ogawa, with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. Her playing in the sparkling first movement was as light and nimble as could be hoped for, although it occasionally felt a little detached from the orchestra. The slow movement was beautifully handled without ever crossing the line of sentimentality.

Kathryn Lund © Nikolaj Lund
Kathryn Lund
© Nikolaj Lund

Perhaps a little more rehearsal time would not have gone amiss, though; stylistically the most isolated from the rest of the programme in its strong jazz influences, it was the one concerto of the evening which stuttered a little. The clarity of texture required for the outer movements was not always there, and ensemble took some time to settle. Nonetheless, it was a solid all-round reading.

Martin Roscoe joined the orchestra for Ravel’s other piano concerto, that written for the left hand of Paul Wittgenstein. Roscoe handled the technical challenges of the work with supreme ease, thundering across the keyboard with utmost control and smartly balancing the music from the weaker outside and stronger inside fingers. The opening minutes saw a lovely ascent from the darkest opening chords to a brilliant sunrise, well-coordinated by Andrew Gourlay on the rostrum and sensitively backed by the orchestra. The central slow sections were painted with a broad brush and the latter passages with a fierce intensity. If some sense of textural clarity had been lacking in the other concerto, it was suddenly found in abundance here. After some well-shaped solo playing from Roscoe, the coda was an exceptionally hard-fought victory.

The second half of the evening was dominated by Rachmaninov, born just two years before Ravel and dying six years later. The two are not thought to have met, but tonight’s programme surely brought them far closer together than people generally hold them. Kathryn Stott was soloist for the Russian’s Fourth Piano Concerto of 1926 (with extensive revisions 15 years later). Her sense of dramatic line was apparent from very early in the subtleties of her phrasing and readily adaptable touch, from heavily weighted and driven grandiosity to a soft, airy sense of light.

Some of the finest orchestral playing of the night came in the slow movement’s soft, moonlit procession. The low strings murmured with an uncommonly rich, warm sound, while Stott produced some deeply affecting effects from the keyboard, while also proving a sensitive accompanist to the orchestra when required.

The most popular work on the programme – the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini –was saved until last. Both Rachmaninov works demanded new pianos be brought on stage. Peter Donohoe, the final soloist of the night, wasted no time in laying into the new instrument. His sound was by far the most muscular of the night – even the first variation was relatively direct and purposeful – and this inspired some feisty, full-blooded orchestral playing in turn. Individual variations were well constructed, the Dies irae passages suitably dark and others full of zesty animation. Donohoe has a lovely way of drawing sound out from the piano, far removed from his heavily percussive playing elsewhere, which worked wonders for the famous 18th variation.

Andrew Gourlay did a very good job of mapping out the greater scheme of the work, so that the final result was worth far more than the sum of its individual variations. It made for a suitably rousing close to the evening, and indeed the festival, and all four soloists were heartily cheered back to the stage at the end. Above all, the programmers deserve enormous credit for devising such an enlightening programme.

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