A nice big shot of German Romanticism was just what the doctor ordered. And it seems Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Stephen Hough were also in the mood. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, in its first live performance of 2021, provided the crucible for two giants of the period, hot-headed and passionate and wearing their hearts well and truly on their sleeves. But pity poor Schumann and Brahms, whose first performances of the works in this programme had miserable receptions (actually the overture, when performed on its own, was well-received, but not so the full opera), although herein also lies a mesh of personal and musical connections between the two that added much to the real-life drama.

Stephen Hough, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Schumann’s only opera Genoveva didn’t really take off, with the critic Eduard Hanslick asserting that the overture was the best part of the entire work. Gardiner and the BSO were enticing from the outset, providing warmth and curiosity through Schumann’s intriguing harmonic invention, driving the tension and giving each section of the orchestra a chance to be heard. The vitality and urgency of the playing was evident, and it was satisfying to hear the BSO relishing each note on the page. Full marks must go to Gardiner for persisting with this worthy piece, both in the concert hall and in the recording studio. But we should also see it for what it is – a prelude to a drama. The opera, were it to unfold, would tell the tale of heroism, fidelity, infatuation and deception. But the real-life story bridging the two pieces was no less eventful, with Schumann’s suicide attempt and subsequent death, and Brahms, a close friend, completing his emotionally charged Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor in the wake of these events.

Stephen Hough rehearsing with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Hough joined Gardiner in a powerful, intense performance of this titanic concerto, in what was – surprisingly – the first time they had worked together. The connection was clearly there – sideways glances, careful shaping and instinctive partnering with the orchestra. Hough was thoughtful and subtle in his approach and ferocious at key moments, with Gardiner’s masterful sculpting of arching phrases helping to form a living and breathing performance. The co-ordination was not always as tight as it might be, and the sound balance, superb for the most part, sometimes lost some definition in the lower strings, but these were only minor detractions. 

The serenity of Hough’s playing in the Adagio, with some of the solo piano passages painfully exquisite, combined affectionately with sympathetic lyricism in the orchestra and some particularly fine oboe and bassoon layering. The Hungarian romp of the Rondo was given pure freedom, flitting energetically between the delicate and the thunderous. We are used to seeing images of the austere, fully-bearded Brahms, but this red-blooded work was Brahms in his youthful, clean-shaven phase. Hough, Gardiner and the BSO made sure we just heard Brahms.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO's live video stream