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  PROM16 - Casken, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky:  Stephen Hough (piano)  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons, Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.7.2009 (J-PJ)

John Casken:
Orion over Farne
Tchaikovsly: Piano Concerto No.2 in G major
Stravinsky: The Firebird

Apart from a brief mobile phone call and a persistent alarm clock bleep during the first half, the packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall mostly behaved itself during this Prom concert. They were rewarded with a performance of depth and variety – even if the quality of the music was uneven.

John Casken's Orion over Farne opened the concert. A large-scale work scored for full orchestra, including a battery of percussion, it combined a depiction of the austere Farne islands off the Northumberland coast with various myths associated with the ancient Greek huntsman and stellar constellation Orion. Originally composed in 1984, Orion over Farne felt like a work of its time – with sliding strings, brass cries and fanfares, and percussive blasts. It somehow didn’t quite live up to its programmatic promise. Although impressively played, it felt over-long and lacked a sense of direction.

A lack of direction also characterised Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. The poor relation of the first, it suffers even more from that concerto’s overblown structure. The Royal Albert Hall’s woeful acoustics also took their toll. The strings sounded dull and distant, while the piano solo was thin and tinny. That should not, however, detract from Stephen Hough’s performance. He is clearly a passionate advocate of this neglected work, and played with astonishing bravura and heartfelt sensitivity. His technical trickery and stamina were best exemplified in the heavy first movement. In the central Andante he was joined by violinist Laurence Jackson and cellist Ulrich Heinen in what is essentially a triple concerto movement. More brilliance in the finale made for thrilling listening, but only confirmed the impression that the work is a parade of grand gestures that ultimately lead nowhere.

No such problems with Stravinsky’s Firebird. From the hushed opening in the enchanted garden to final regal rejoicing, the CBSO maintained a steady control under the assured yet lively command of music director Andris Nelsons. With some impeccable ensemble playing, the orchestra effectively peeled away the textural layers of Stravinsky’s score. The percussion section stood out in particular, as did the ringing horns and agile woodwind. The splendidly chaotic appearance of Kashchey’s monsters and their dance under the Firebird’s spell could have done with a little more edginess, and the central dances of the princesses and Tsarevich tended to sag a little. But overall, this was an intelligent and assured performance, full of brilliant touches. 

John-Pierre Joyce


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