Tall and pale, with a bob of black hair, the young Estonian pianist Mihkel Poll has the kind of presence that evokes great Romantic virtuosi like Rachmaninov and Liszt before he’s so much as played a note. Still, nothing had prepared us for quite how spectacularly this performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto, with the Sinfonia of Birmingham conducted by Michael Seal, would make good on those impressions.
Poised, and at times almost motionless, Poll seemed to stroke the music out of the piano, singing Rachmaninov’s lines like the Russian Orthodox chants that inspired them, and dispatching passage-work with gleaming, perfectly-measured bravura.
Around him, Seal and the Sinfonia sculpted and shaded Rachmaninov’s orchestral accompaniment. Seal has a powerful gift for finding and drawing out long musical lines, building climaxes over entire movements, and finding the keystone of a symphonic argument.
And with Seal at the top of his game, and Poll’s playing firing the orchestra, the performance just took off. Impassioned, expressive and taut, the momentum and sense of sheer rightness generated together by conductor, orchestra and soloist was magnificent. We’ve heard very few performances of the Third, by any artist, to equal this one - and none to surpass it.
There isn’t space to do justice to the colourful, gutsy performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony that preceded it, and indeed the first half of the concert was overshadowed by the announcement that – without greater financial support – the 86th season of Sutton Coldfield Philharmonic Society concerts could be the last. Incredibly, there were empty seats tonight. Sutton Coldfield needs to think hard about whether it wants classical concerts of this quality – and frankly, whether it deserves them.