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Seen and Heard Concert Review


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.


Tristan Jakob-Hoff



 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)