LPO Vänskä Hough

Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
Piano Concerto No.5 in F, Op.103
The Bard, Op.64
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52

Stephen Hough (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A mix of works that might have appeared disparate, even incongruous, but which worked a treat on the night.

First up, a measured account of the ‘Haffner’ Symphony in which I-dotting and T-crossing didn’t impinge on the music’s celebration and contours. Indeed this was a Romantic, blossoming traversal, articulate and finely balanced, and warmly expressed – nowhere more so than in the Andante, here made substantial by repeating both its halves (and with short grace notes unusually convincing). If the repeats made this movement top-heavy in proportion (if of ‘heavenly length’ for listening purposes), Osmo Vänskä would no doubt have observed the first movement’s exposition repeat if his score had printed it (very few do and there is conjecture as to whether Mozart marked one). Such things aside, this amiable performance was a joy.

So too the Saint-Saëns – another musical craftsman. Stephen Hough (like Steven Isserlis, who was at this concert) is an unapologetic champion of this splendid composer and gave a rip-roaring account of the sometimes-called ‘Egyptian’ Concerto, one technically blessed and, more importantly, played with musical relish. This is charming and suggestive music, and a real heart beats in Saint-Saëns invention. The LPO’s response was fresh and dedicated under Vänskä’s sympathetic direction, and whether he was enjoyably pointing up the Moorish connotations of the second movement (including passages that seem to presage John Cage’s ‘prepared piano’, but solely achieved through the cunning use of intervals), revelling in the finale’s roulade of notes, or simply expressing a delightful phrase, Hough left no doubt as to his affection for this beguiling music.

Osmo Vänskä and Sibelius are synonymous. Neither The Bard nor the Third Symphony is too often heard – indeed with the latter it seems that we only hear it in London from Vänskä (a memorable account at Proms 2003) or Colin Davis. If the LPO was unfamiliar with either score, it didn’t show, and Vänskä used all his experience in this music to get to its heart. The Bard’s intensity was powerfully conveyed, the sounds conjured recognisably ‘right’ for this music, and the concise symphony was a model of lucidity, the links in the chain laid out in a line of unbroken strength and eloquence. In his fine balance between structure and emotion, Vänskä’s was acute conducting.

He favours, like Colin Davis, a slower tempo for the second movement than the marking might suggest (so too did Robert Kajanus, who first recorded this work, and with the imprimatur of the composer) and the dance strains had a gentle lilt. The building-blocks of the finale were revealed with unusual clarity and sustained with deliberation until the vindicating coda. Just occasionally the brass was rather loud, although the woodwinds sparkled, and this was music-making of real distinction. Hopefully, the LPO will be programming this symphony again – this time with Paavo Berglund, whose Sibelius performances with the Orchestra in recent seasons have been exceptional.

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