Philharmonia and Stephen Hough at Southbank Centre
Nobody takes command quite like Stephen Hough at the piano. He is a wonderful soloist, of course, but there was a real insistence, almost an unforgivingness, to his Beethoven. Programmed with Carl Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” Symphony No 4, it made for an intense evening at the Royal Festival Hall. Gripping, though.
The concert opened with Sibelius’s often overlooked The Swan of Tuonela, which was so quietly presented and descriptive – as intrepid and Finnish as ever, a lonely swan upon still, black waters – that it drew the listener in a manner no blazing fanfare could ever achieve.
Hough’s Beethoven followed: Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor. It was a brilliantly matter-of-fact performance reflecting what felt like a, “Dinner, flawless Beethoven, bed” approach. He was not to be pushed around and really might as well have been directing (though conductor Ryan Bancroft did come into his own with great energy in the symphony that followed). Hough strove to vary his interpretation from others’ with some generally steady tempi (the second movement was taken at an absolute crawl) and wavering lulls, the Philharmonia impelled to fall in line with his uncompromising rendition. Nevertheless, his exquisite mastery and musicianship shone, and he brought an enthralling deftness to Schumann’s The Prophet Bird as an encore.
The Beethoven’s steadfastness aptly paved the way for the Inextinguishable; it’s sure to be a hearty symphony when a second set of timpani is rolled out. This work, penned in the turmoil of the emerging First World War and Nielsen’s private life falling apart around him, was bright and furious, sizzling white-hot and, indeed, not to be extinguished. The Philharmonia threw their all into the performance, summoning all-conquering Nordic force as they went. A dark, heavy string sound was a key element to their explosive success, alongside, of course, the two sets of bombastic timpani set up in stereo on either side of the stage. The sparkling fury of this rendition was poised and considered, bringing about a great deal more intensity than a temptingly colossal all-out hell-for-leather affair.
This is how to programme. The evening’s entertainment had progression and a round wholeness, not overlooking a classy delivery from Hough, Bancroft and the Philharmonia.
For further information and future events visit Philharmonia’s website here.