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PROM 6: Musgrave, Rachmaninoff, Nielsen Stephen Hough, piano, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 20 July 2005 (TJH)


Thea Musgrave – Turbulent Landscapes – London Premiere

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1

Nielsen – Symphony No. 4, The Inextinguishable


Osmo Vänskä’s debut Prom last year was one of the season’s highlights: an account of Sibelius’ Second Symphony that probed the score’s forgotten corners and discovered, beneath its populist veneer, music of great substance and integrity. In so doing, Vänskä provoked the BBCSO to greater artistic heights than they had achieved all season, with playing to better some of the more famous visiting orchestras and commitment levels to match. It was all the more a pity, then, that hardly anyone attended.


This year though, word seems to have got around, and the Royal Albert Hall was just about packed out for Vänskä’s sophomore appearance on Wednesday night. To be totally fair, he wasn’t the only drawcard of the evening: pianist Stephen Hough – who, with Vänskä, had performed miracles on Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Concerto back in April – was on hand to perform one of the Rachmaninoff concertos, the First. A recent CD set of the complete Rachmaninoff concertos has won Hough accolades and adulation all round, and it was not difficult to hear why: refined and understated, his playing revealed the subtleties of Rachmaninoff’s piano writing with an impressive mastery of tone and touch. The long piano solo in the second movement was accompanied only by the stillness of an audience leaning in to listen, while the outer movements’ pyrotechnics were handled with good humour and light fingers; even the finale’s Big Tune – pure schmaltz in the wrong hands – had an Elgarian dignity to it. If there were a few moments here and there that cried out for a little less culture and a little more thunder, Hough for the most part brought out the very best in the music, proving once and for all that there is more than note-spinning and big chords to Rachmaninoff’s art.


Opening the concert was the London premiere of Thea Musgrave’s 2003 work, Turbulent Landscapes – a sort of latter-day Pictures at an Exhibition, only set at the Tate Britain. In six ostensibly unconnected (but actually rather similar) orchestral movements, Musgrave described various paintings by JMW Turner in a great impressionist murk of shifting orchestral sonority. But despite the presence of musical sea-monsters, shipwrecks and snow storms, there was little in Musgrave’s unflinchingly tonal harmonies to tweak the ear, making for a sadly pedestrian promenade.


Topping off the bill, though, was a stunning piece of music-making in the shape of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, the so-called "Inextinguishable". As with last year’s Sibelius 2, Vänskä brought real strength of purpose to his conducting here, beautifully pacing the four interlocking movements to form a compelling and cohesive whole. The BBCSO woodwind section put on an especially convincing Scandinavian accent for the duration – with some particularly charming ensemble playing in the second movement – and the strings contributed some gorgeous moments in the beautiful slow movement, emotionally committed yet simultaneously aloof. Best of all was the Sibelius-like brass melody that first rang out in the opening movement; when it returned in the finale, it had an unquestionable nobility to it, beset though it was by that movement’s famously duelling timpani. As the antiphonal drummers raised their final holy racket, it was hard not to raise a smile; surely Nielsen’s intent, and just as surely a product of the sympathy and understanding Vänskä had shown for his music.


Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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