Orion over Farne … The Firebird

Orion over Farne
Piano Concerto No.2 in G, Op.44
The Firebird

Stephen Hough (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

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

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaThis season’s BBC Proms includes Tchaikovsky’s four works for piano and orchestra (three concertos and the Concert Fantasia) – played by Stephen Hough – and Stravinsky’s ballet scores, of which The Firebird marked his first venture – in 1910 and almost by accident – into the medium, for the impresario Serge Diaghilev.

Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto (also set to a ballet, by George Balanchine as Ballet Imperial) used to be performed with stringent cuts by Alexander Siloti. That version is not performed much these days. Stephen Hough champions the full-size original. In the slow movement, prominent with violin and cello solos, Hough has added the piano to when the string solos return.

Hough proved to be a great ambassador for this work, exploring the range of the concerto whilst tackling it with Herculean virtuosity, his self-assurance belying the piece’s difficulties. What was striking was the exploration of detail, with particular clarity in his fingerwork. There was no wallowing in the 20 minutes of the first movement, with Hough revealing its heroic and lyrical character, the main cadenza fighting for dominance. Elsewhere he took up the delicate passages so as to highlight the movement’s many contrasting stop-starts without them ever being that.

Andris Nelsons. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThe heavenly slow movement is really a concerto for piano trio, with the violin and cello soloists (Laurence Jackson and Ulrich Heinen, respectively) here in gorgeous dialogue for the opening measures. The finale, with its ever-so catchy themes, fizzed under Hough’s deft touch. Andris Nelsons and the CBSO didn’t always catch the ‘brillante’ of the first movement, or the depth of the second, and Nelsons allowed momentum to sag at times in the finale.

Hough offered a calming encore, Jeunes filles au jardin by Federico Mompou.

The Firebird, performed complete, was mixed. There were some very fine individual contributions, especially bassoon solos from Alessandro Caprotti and wonderful and light interjections from flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic. Notable, too, were the secure horn offerings from Elspeth Dutch – who also shone in the Tchaikovsky – whose sound rose above the orchestra with sublime effort. These individual strengths did not add up to a satisfying whole, a result of Nelsons’s very demonstrative direction. The opening mutterings summoned layers of mystery but then the music became bogged down, only occasionally rising from tiredness; the music seeming too Suite-like, although the louder moments were suitably dramatic and the string descent before the final ‘General Rejoicing’ was mesmerising.

Opening the concert was John Casken’s Orion over Farne, a large-scale work depicting the magical landscape of the Farne islands and the Northumberland landscape along with mythical ideas of the huntsman Orion’s adventures. For a work that uses such a large orchestra, with extensive percussion, the full-force sections failed to come alive. It was the intimate moments that were the most convincing, those of captivating stillness, evoking isolation with freedom to wander, that were inspirational.

It is sad to report that the concert’s first half was disfigured by a repeating bleeping noise, which proved an annoying distraction during the quiet moments.

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