Concert promotion is a tricky business. The title Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony could have suggested that everything else would be little more than makeweight. On Sunday it was far from that.
True, Howard Shelley and the ECO gave a terrific account of said symphony, full of rhythmic energy on the peripheries yet always mindful of its ironic inner workings; but even more impressive were the two piano concertos forming the centrepiece of his programme.
Directing from the keyboard, Shelley brought a refreshing directness and effortlessness to his playing, conveying the sentimentality and charm of Mendelssohn’s First Concerto with affectionate warmth, and delivering Saint-Saëns’ Second (both coincidentally in G minor) with an elegantly fashioned lyricism and sweet-toned nonchalance.
Of the two, Saint-Saëns offered more to the soloist, not least an opening tribute to Bach (its heroics so lightly-worn) and an exhilarating dash-to-the-line finale of endless twiddles, which Shelley threw off with such glittering panache and ease you almost feel the music’s excitement being diminished, rather than enhanced.
Flourishes of a different kind marked Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, its introductory Adagio not too overblown and the outer movements impeccably balanced in delicacy and well-mannered exuberance. And, like everything else, it was beautifully played.
Rating * * * * *