Agon … Francesca da Rimini

Agon – ballet for 12 dancers
Concert fantasia, Op.56
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op.33 [Original Version]
Francesca da Rimini – symphonic fantasia after Dante, Op.32

Stephen Hough (piano)

Steven Isserlis (cello)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Francesco Burns

Reviewed: 28 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This BBC Prom marked the culmination of performing all of Stravinsky’s ballet scores and Tchaikovsky’s complete works for piano and orchestra this season.

David Robertson’s conducting was assured throughout Stravinsky’s Agon. The opening ‘Pas de quatre’ whizzed into life with a sense of nervous energy that was maintained throughout. Difficult as it may be in the Royal Albert Hall to reveal delicate sonorities, Robertson maintained a clear balance of textures in moments of unusual ensemble. Notable were the couplings of woodwind and castanets, and harp and mandolin. The lighter passages fared very well despite the hall’s acoustic, with some impressive playing from leader Stephen Bryant.

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaStephen Hough rounded off his Tchaikovsky survey with the Concert Fantasia. As with anything Hough puts his mind (and fingers) to, this neglected work was putty in his hands. With technical challenges that would frighten many a pianist, this work is no mere B-side in a Tchaikovsky concertante album. The opening exchanges between orchestra and soloist were carefully judged. Hough’s phrasing and touch was sensitive and the massive cadenza brought commanding virtuosity: when Hough does loud, it’s never for the sake of it, and he avoids hysteria, so important in Tchaikovsky, as well as delighting in the ‘Contrastes’ (including a soulful cello solo from Susan Monks) that fill out the second movement. If one came away more impressed by Hough than the piece, his recording of this and Tchaikovsky’s concertos – due from Hyperion next May – is keenly anticipated.

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerThe concert’s second half opened with Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, given as Tchaikovsky wrote it rather than in the re-write by the original soloist, Fitzenhagen. Tempos were strict, textures were clear, and rubato was thoughtfully judged. Robertson’s support was light and effervescent, allowing Steven Isserlis to glide through delicate passages with ease, be aristocratic where needed, and his harmonics and trills were delightful, adding a subtle dimension of golden gloss to the texture.

Robertson rounded things off with Francesca da Rimini. The Wagner-inspired chromatic density of the opening was allowed to thicken just the right amount by Robertson, whose shaping of internal dialogue between sections ensured the texture didn’t become too viscous. Depictions of the howling of souls in hell and the ferocious wind were convincingly portrayed. In the contrasting portrait that followed, Francesca was tenderly characterised by clarinettist Richard Hosford, supported by some luminescent, hushed string playing, the shaping of Francesca and Paolo’s growing love never becoming histrionic, making the depiction of their inevitable tragic fate a satisfying frenzy of orchestral power.

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