CBSO, Alpesh Chauhan & Stephen Hough

Academic Festival Overture, Op.80 (1880)

Piano Concerto No.1 in G-minor, Op.25 (1831)
Symphony No.1 in C-minor, Op.11 (1824)

Stephen Hough (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Alpesh Chauhan

Recorded on 25th November then broadcast online from 10th December 2020

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 December, 2020
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The last of the City of Birmingham Symphony’s online concerts in 2020 saw former associate conductor Alpesh Chauhan at the helm for a programme largely of Mendelssohn but opening with Brahms. It may utilise his largest orchestral forces, but the Academic Festival Overture adapted well to social distancing on Symphony Hall’s platform. Chauhan had the measure of its stealthy progress crisscrossed with student songs, prior to a blazing peroration as no doubt delighted Breslau University – its award of an honorary doctorate to Brahms amply rewarded.

Surprising Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto is not more often heard, as its compact design takes in a greater variety of mood and incident than many such pieces nearly twice its length. Stephen Hough has long been an advocate (he recorded it with this orchestra over two decades ago), and he duly let fly in an initial Allegro whose ‘con fuoco’ marking underlines its sheer impetus; a more ruminative side less in evidence until fanfares lead to an Andante where the soloist and orchestra pursues a melting interplay, with some especially felicitous writing for lower strings. From here more fanfares herald a final Presto whose coruscating pianism and uninhibited verve exude an almost operatic immediacy, but Hough was mindful to allow the wistful second theme room to breathe upon its return – before the headlong dash to the close.

Among the less often heard ‘first symphonies’ by a major composer, Mendelssohn’s own was overshadowed by numerous works from over the next decade (including the above Concerto). Not that its stylistic influences weigh unduly heavily, though that of Weber’s Der Freischützinforms the opening Allegro with its impassioned manner and headlong rhythmic drive such as Chauhan (rightly) held in check. The Andante inhabits a more pastoral mood, its emotional poise intensified if not disrupted by unexpected tonal shifts, then the Minuet’s strutting gait found effective contrast in its Trio’s chaste lyricism; the transition back to the Mozartean main theme cunningly rendered. The final Allegro has more than a touch of theatricality, Chauhan keeping any histrionics on a tight rein until the coda brings with it an almost nonchalant close.

Overall, then, a judicious selection – Mendelssohn being a composer who always brings out the best in the CBSO. No doubt 2021 will bring further concerts of comparable commitment, and hopefully a return to music-making with listeners present not long into this coming year.

Available until Friday 8th January via

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