LPO/Eschenbach Stephen Hough – Brahms, Mendelssohn & Schubert

Variations on a Theme by Haydn [St Anthony Chorale], Op.56a
Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Stephen Hough (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Christoph Eschenbach. Photograph: Eric BrissaudIt seemed a long way for the otherwise-not-needed Rachel Gledhill to join us for a few pings on the triangle in the closing bars of Brahms’s Variations (not ‘on’ Haydn, it turns out, for the St Anthony Chorale is a traditional melody, one used not even in a piece by Haydn but Pleyel; still, Brahms was acting in good faith at the time).

Brahms’s place in the programme alongside Schubert was an honourable one, for he did, I believe, make an early edition of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony. However, the Tragic Overture would perhaps have been a greater foil to the joyous Mendelssohn that followed (and no triangle is required for it!), which should not be taken as any criticism of the performance, for the St Anthony Chorale itself was given with flow and elegance – and beautifully blended woodwinds – the succeeding Variations finely characterised, lovingly shaped as required (without indulgence) and athletic in the faster ones, vividly detailed, and then solemnised in the closing section.

Christoph Eschenbach’s surprisingly spacious tempo for Brahms’s finale was a convincing way in order to round-off what had been a particularly contrasted view of the Variations, one richly expressed and warmly played, yet without an ounce of excess fat.

A similar clarity informed Eschenbach’s decidedly personal view of the Schubert. Being ‘historically informed’ these days now makes such a performance seem miscalculated if deliciously individual. The slow introduction was very spacious, the two horn-players required to pick-out every note. We were already enjoying a “heavenly length” (Schumann) before a slight increase in tempo brought an Allegro that was very much ma non troppo, but given with buoyancy, and delicacy, motifs traced through the orchestra with transparent ease. Such lucidity was a hallmark of this performance. Eschenbach could usefully have repeated the exposition, for what followed bordered on the extraordinary, a slow movement (albeit one marked Andante con moto) that began with very deliberate tread, became slower, and slower still – and wonderfully rapt – for the glorious melody that could be regarded as ‘third subject’, horn calls taking us even further into a rarefied environment.

If, over 18 minutes (check that timing out with the average), Eschenbach’s concept seemed just a little ‘designer’, and the climax’s punch was a little pulled, this was a fascinating traversal, deeply expressive and also exposing of internal mechanics; aesthetically pleasing, too. Yet, with a first movement (even as majestic as here) now dwarfed by the expanse of the second one, the remaining two movements then surprised by the drive that Eschenbach gave to both, the scherzo (joyous) and trio scaled-down with the minimum of repeats (the two longest eschewed), the trio taking on a life of its own in its unhurried lilt. Come the finale, one might have anticipated something of the gemütlich quality that Barbirolli and Knappertsbusch brought to it. Quite the reverse, this was an exhilarating fly-through, no concessions made to the string-players (none needed), yet without sounding relentless and leading to a sonorous and uplifting conclusion.

Throughout this unusually absorbing, and flexible, performance, Eschenbach’s keen ear for detail and dynamics, and integration of brass, ensured clarity and wholeness, the LPO on top form.

Stephen HoughThe concert’s centrepiece was Mendelssohn’s compact and engaging Piano Concerto No.1, its outer movements played with panache by Stephen Hough. As a complete contrast to such joie de vivre, the central slow movement was exquisitely revealed, the LPO’s cellos and violas aurally hugging the soloist centre-stage (another productive consequence of Eschenbach requiring antiphonal violins) and opening up a Romantic picture, day-dreaming in a forest (something like that). As an encore, Hough continued that mood, ‘Träumerei’ from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, tenderly realised, and saying much without any need to distort the line.

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