National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain

Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Concerto for Orchestra
Roman Festivals

Stephen Hough (piano)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 8 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaAfter tackling the two Tchaikovsky piano concertos that are rarely played, Stephen Hough hinted at a slightly different approach to “The most famous piano concerto … ever!” in his performance of the First. Hough says there are few pieces more “set in their ways” and suggests a number of ‘what ifs’ and reminds us that Tchaikovsky “also takes us back to the innocence of childhood, with a longing to hear music itself as if for the first time.” Hough’s suggestion that the “famous opening chords were not punched-out fists of notes strutting confidently up the keyboard, but instead sprigs of spread, harp-like chords accompanying a slow waltz?” played handsome dividends. Here was a valid argument for a less-overt approach.

Vasily Petrenko and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain were fully up to the task, providing delightfully lean and sympathetic support to Hough’s conception. This was swift, but the pacing never felt rushed, the first movement allowed to unfold naturally, the climaxes carefully constructed, the end result wholly exciting. Hough’s virtuosity is a given but it is always at the service of the music, fearsome technical obstacles brushed off with aplomb, the cadenza spun with brilliant ease and leading to a thrillingly urgent coda. Hough explored the music’s poetic side, the second-movement Andantino semplice a case in point, a “little girl’s song on Christmas morning”, a particularly innocent rendition, the NYO losing some discipline during the central prestissimo section. There was no slackening in tempo for the finale, orchestra and soloist really gelling, Hough pulling out all the stops.

As an encore, Hough offered his own delicately shaded transcription of Tchaikovsky’s song “None but the lonely heart”.

Vasily Petrenko. Photograph: Mark McNultyThe rest of the concert belonged to the NYO, the Lutosławski and the Respighi pieces placing formidable demands on an orchestra and giving individual sections the opportunity to show off. The outsize forces of young musicians rose to the task, giving performances of commitment, energy and impressive technical ability, Petrenko organising his players effectively and not allowing detail to get swamped by the huge waves of sound.

Lutosławski’s post-Bartók Concerto for Orchestra was hugely exciting, the first movement full of bitingly jagged rhythms set against pounding timpani, Petrenko bringing out the richness of the folk melodies. The scherzo brought the best out of the NYO with some beautifully judged gossamer sounds from violins and distinctive playing from the winds; the lengthy finale paraded the NYO’s range leading to a thrilling conclusion.

Roman Festivals is the least well-known part of Respighi’s ‘Roman Trilogy’, music dismissed in some quarters as “sword and sandals” film music. Certainly the opening fanfares conjure up images of Hollywood epics, and the full-on aural assault doesn’t stop there. This is hugely entertaining music and the members of the National Youth Orchestra didn’t hide their enjoyment in revelling in the florid depictions of Rome under the Caesars. The mellower moments, such as the depiction of pilgrims on the road to the Holy City were beautifully realised by the strings. The Petrushka-like depiction of the finale’s crowd scenes were colourfully portrayed, the closing dances brought off with relish and great rhythmic élan.

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