I’d been assured from friends who knew I was attending this concert that the Brandon Hill Chamber Orchestra is the finest amateur orchestra in Bristol and I was in for a treat. Despite the recommendation, I did not expect them to be one of the best amateur orchestras I’ve ever heard. The sound they produced under Ewa Strusinska’s baton belied their status as amateur.

They began Lutosławski’s folk-tune-based Little Suite in fine style, the extended piccolo opening supported by incredibly well blended woodwind that sounded like a harmonica or accordion. All this gave way to suitably beefy strings and percussion interruptions – the balance was maintained superbly, with each section dovetailing beautifully together. Immediately you felt this was sensitive playing under a confident conductor clearly enjoying herself. The piece itself lacked the weight usually associated with Lutosławski and isn’t necessarily a work that shows off his importance in 20th-century music. It’s perhaps a product of the politics of Soviet Poland that this piece goes nowhere near the exuberance and naughtiness of his First Symphony that caused controversy amongst some of the party bigwigs, completed three years previously.

Nonetheless, when the piece was completed a rapturous round of applause was well deserved for some fine ensemble playing. Next up was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 – a piece I’ve heard more times than I care to remember. It is a piece that is impossible to avoid, and whilst that does not makes it bad, it makes it hard to enjoy. As such I think circumstances have to be perfect in order to take this performance on and no-one could say this venue – unrivalled for chamber music but without the necessary size for this piece (written for full symphony orchestra) provided perfect circumstance. There was not quite the same energy and vibrancy that was the mark of their opening salvo, and as the interval approached some moments sounded a little sloppy as timing and balance – the mark of the refined and professional-sounding performance in the first piece – waned either from slips in concentration or as fingers and lips began to tire. I have to add that, for my taste, piano soloist Ashley Fripp didn’t lavish the romantic extravagance that I think this piece calls for.

After the interval we heard Strauss’s suite from Der Rosenkavalier and I was incredibly impressed. This piece is fun and entertaining from the first moment to the last. Strusinska squeezed every drop from the orchestra and the final movement in particular felt like a romp, performed as though everyone on stage was simply having the best time. The piccolo player rounded off a busy night with some devilish sections which were dealt with marvellously. Most impressive was the care taken over the final climaxes – Strusinska kept a tight rein on the ensemble, moving through swell after swell towards the final tutti fortes, where each section broke free and roused the audience to their feet. They really got a great reception, and deservedly so: I can’t remember an amateur ensemble I’ve heard make such a robust sound. BHCO have a great ethos and have developed a model that allows them to work with great conductors (luminaries such as Martyn Brabbins have conducted the ensemble in the past). Ewa Stusinska seems no exception and should be proud of a great concert, missing the adjective “fantastic” only for programming the Rachmaninov, which I felt fitted neither the venue nor the style of ensemble.