St Cecilia Orchestra’s Rachmaninov Festival brought Peter Donohoe CBE to Ripon to perform all four piano concerti and Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini across two evenings. Donohoe previously completed the feat in Moscow in 1984; here he also gave two pre-concert talks. In the first, he spoke of the music’s melodic essence and deep sadness, the latter a product of the composer’s life-threatening medical condition and forced exile from his homeland; he also defended Concerto No. 4 against criticism and neglect, considering this a symptom of 20th-century musical tastes and an excuse by conductors and orchestras keen to avoid its technical difficulties. The second talk included Donohoe’s first performance of the Variations on a theme of Chopin, an early work founded on the latter’s C-minor Prelude.
Donohoe was at one with the Model E Steingraeber & Söhne piano, shipped in specially from Bayreuth by the head of the company – who himself attended the concerts. Its noble, mellow tone supported the soloist’s conviction that the virtuosity of the writing is secondary to the musical thread; in addition to facilitating the singing tone and clarity crucial to Rachmaninov, it was notable for its ultra-smooth sustain in the bass, while the soloist was able to extract all of the bass growl and treble sparkle he required.
St Cecilia Orchestra did a remarkable job of accompanying this complex music, even without considering the limited rehearsal time. Rachmaninov is littered with intricate placings and sudden tempo changes; preparing one concerto is no shortcut to the rest. Live performance is never perfect, especially under this pressure, but the few glitches which arose were swiftly repaired with minimal harm to the sweep of the music. Understandably, the orchestra was at its freshest before each interval, but this complemented the programming of a less familiar concerto before the blockbuster. On the first night, ensemble between orchestra and piano was particularly tight under Xenophon Kelsey MBE, but his sharing the conducting duties with Gary Matthewman (himself very familiar with St Cecilia Orchestra and indeed high-profile pianism) paid off handsomely in musical expression on both nights and synchronisation on the second; when the music took flight, it was breathtaking.
The strings underpinned the music with a richness of warmth, yet with crispness readily on tap. Occasionally the woodwind struggled to tune precisely to the piano, but impressed with the spectacular double-tonguing passages in Concerto No. 1; the flute and horn solos on both nights likewise deserve special mention. In the cathedral’s acoustics, the brass had to work hard not to overpower the louder moments on the first night, but they were perfectly integrated on the second; similarly the percussion, who did sterling work to be in time, crisp and in balance from the very back.
It is a super-human feat not only to master five avalanches of notes but also to communicate the music within them. Donohoe’s deep love of this repertoire made apparently light work of the task; who else’s complete concerti could make for a satisfying programme across two evenings? As Donohoe did by joining in the applause himself, I must also pay tribute to the orchestra and conductors for their crucial role in a memorable festival. The standing ovations at the end of each night say all that really needs to be said.