REVIEW: Return to Ripon for top pianist and a favourite orchestra

Members of the St Cecilia Orchestra rise for conductor Xenophon Kelsey at Ripon Cathedral. All pictures by Martin Higginson.

By Ros Clayton

Despite the rivalry of a nearby brass band and firework concert (fortunately not close enough to disrupt the proceedings) a very large audience eagerly anticipated the arrival of internationally acclaimed pianist Peter Donohoe: a great coup for conductor Xenophon Kelsey, who has welcomed him to Ripon on more than one occasion. 

Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, one of the most popular works in the repertoire with its secretive dark opening and rousing drinking songs, opened the evening. Full of tension and bravado, the heavy brass of the orchestra came into its own, the conductor setting a cracking pace, building up the tension as it went along. This set the stage for the highlight of the evening, and perhaps what so many in the audience had come to hear, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5, popularly known as The Emperor. A magnificent work, it ranks among the composer’s finest. Peter Donohoe gave a wonderful performance; in turn full of tenderness and bravura. His technique is formidable. The richness and depth of sound from soloist and orchestra, ranging from the merest whispered pianissimo to full fortissimo, left the audience in no doubt they were hearing a performance worthy of any international concert hall. The tympanist deserves a special mention for the tense atmospheric conclusion of the slow movement leading into the very jolly final rondo.

Peter Donohoe prepares to take his place at the piano.

Post interval Peter Donohoe performed  J S Bach’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, directing a smaller orchestra from the keyboard. A lovely piece that danced with enthusiasm and joy. However, perhaps a full-sized concert grand was not quite the instrument Bach anticipated, despite his seven concertos not being written with particular instruments in mind. More appropriate or authentic to have heard it on a fortepiano or harpsichord, with the accompanying players even fewer in number? Even so, the audience clearly loved it and the performance was flawless.
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Brahms’ Symphony No 3 was a tour de force for Xen Kelsey and St Cecilia. Brilliant playing from the wind, especially in the andante. The strings and brass came into their own in the last movement. The magnificent sound filled the cathedral, before gradually subsiding into the most beautiful sustained harmonies. St Cecilia’s claim to be the north’s leading non professional orchestra is well justified. The next concert by the orchestra will be at Holy Trinity Church, Ripon, on Saturday, February 2.

Conductor Xenophon Kelsey with leader of the orchestra Richard Fletcher.



Principal second violin Helen Warry and principal viola Ben Kearsley.