Seen and Heard Concert
Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Sibelius:
Stephen Hough, piano, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä,
conductor, Royal Festival Hall, 21 April 2005 (TJH)
Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D, K385, “Haffner”
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No 5 in F, Op. 103
Sibelius: The Bard, Op., 64; Symphony No. 3 in C, Op. 52
In an evening otherwise dedicated to Mozart and Sibelius, one
would hardly expect a Saint-Saëns piano concerto to sweep
in and steal the show – but that’s exactly what happened
in Thursday’s London Philharmonic concert. Stephen Hough
was the soloist in the fifth and last of Saint-Saëns’
piano concertos – nicknamed the “Egyptian” –
and he was a superb advocate for this charmingly unpretentious
work, performing the difficult solo part with a perfect blend
of wit and sophistication. His playing was precise, understated
and highly detailed, with a lightness of touch that rendered the
most devilish of passages lissom and airy. In the central Andante,
with its panoply of references to Spanish, Javanese and Arabian
music, Hough conjured up a wealth of colour without any loss of
consistency, while a fine balance of good humour and infectious
energy characterised the outer movements. It was stunning pianism
on every level, turning Saint-Saëns’ occasionally mediocre
material into something utterly magical.
His counterpart on the podium was the talented Finnish conductor
Osmo Vänskä, and he matched Hough’s enthusiasm
effortlessly. He had opened the concert with a sparkling account
of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, full of the gorgeous
horn and woodwind details that usually get lost in Mozart performances;
the London Philharmonic responded to his involved, batonless conducting
with a full, well-balanced sound tempered by great Mozartian refinement.
It was a joy to hear such an old warhorse performed with this
level of warmth and commitment.
After the interval came Vänskä’s specialty: Sibelius.
Vänskä is one of the greatest living Sibelius interpreters,
as evidenced by the near-perfect account of the Second Symphony
he gave with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at last year’s Proms.
If he couldn’t quite pull off his vision of the Third Symphony
on Thursday, it was nonetheless a compelling – and eye-opening
– performance of an unjustly neglected work. Preceding it
with a spacious account of The Bard – possibly
the most single-minded of all Sibelius’ tone poems –
he pushed the symphony along a narrative arc that should have
led inexorably to the finale’s joyous clamour. Unfortunately,
the momentum got lost somewhere along the way and things never
fully cohered, with some uncharacteristic balance issues marring
the last two movements in particular. But it was a journey that,
however unsatisfying, was well worth taking, if only for Vänskä’s
take on the middle movement, the Andantino con moto.
His special talent is for turning Sibelius’ obsessive, fragmentary
slow movements into epic tone poems of enormous cumulative power,
and that’s exactly what he did here, adopting a slow and
deliberate pace that allowed every detail to register and reverberate.
The effect was to turn a movement that – even at a faster
tempo – often sounds too long, into a haunting meditation
that, if anything, didn’t go on long enough.