There used to be an unwritten convention that Bruckner and shorter Mahler symphonies were best preceded by Mozart piano concertos. More recently, stranger combinations have been asserting themselves. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO have been touring with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. Now, in this concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alpesh Chauhan with Bruckner’s last symphony as the main work, the pianistic fireworks came in the form of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. What linked the two, certainly from Chauhan’s point of view, was the expressive warmth he found in both pieces. 

Stephen Hough
© BBC | Mark Allan

The reason why the Rachmaninov proved to be such a satisfying feast was because the soloist Stephen Hough had all the right ingredients lined up, his range of expressive detail always at the service of the music. From a purposeful start with sharp accents emphasising the jazz-like syncopations, he moved into Variation 7 almost imperceptibly, conjuring up the dark and suspenseful appearance of the Dies irae theme, the bassoons murmuring expectantly in the background. Then, in Variation 9, the clarity of his passagework was matched by the precision of the col legno strings, with Chauhan and the BBC SO adding festive touches to the orchestral tutti in the following variation. 

Variations 11-18, culminating in the most famous variation of all 24, form a lyrical interlude to the outer sections of the work, with mercurial shifts in tone and mood from Hough, amplified by the crystalline quality of his playing, and fine contributions from solo oboe, horn and violin in Variation 16. Working in close partnership with Chauhan, he stressed the excitability of Variation 22, slowly picking up speed, energy and intensity while spinning like a whirlwind on its own axis, until in the final “crème de menthe variation” pulling out all the stops in a dazzling bravura display. Paderewski’s Nocturne, given as an encore, restored the emotional equilibrium.

Alpesh Chauhan conducts the BBC SO
© BBC | Mark Allan

The world premiere of Richard Baker’s nine-minute piece, The Price of Curiosity, which opened the concert, displayed a command of contrasting orchestral textures, including the use of wood blocks and chattering woodwind. It was strong on atmosphere but weaker in terms of a narrative line. All the composer’s references to a Hitchcock film, Doris Day and the song Che sera, sera were somewhat lost in the dense orchestration. 

It is possible to make Bruckner glow in the  Barbican, though in my experience that has come more easily to visiting orchestras. What this particular acoustic doesn’t do is mystery. The clarity of the brass detail was immediately present in Chauhan’s reading of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor. Repeatedly, however, the brass tended to dominate the orchestral textures, the violins massed on the conductor’s left and not positioned antiphonally, with too little inner string detail serving as a counterweight to the blocks of brass-laden sound. Even in Bruckner too many assaults from the brass prove ultimately counter-productive. 

Chauhan was obviously searching for maximum expression, both the baton and his left arm frequently delineating wide arcs. This worked especially well in the Scherzo, which had admirable demonic pacing and phrasing as well as a good deal of the terror which I felt was missing in the opening movement. Here, the furies were well and truly aroused. The Trio, however, though light and fluffy, was taken at a slightly breathless speed, so the contrast failed to make its appropriate effect. In the Finale, though Chauhan delivered full firepower where it mattered and made the grinding dissonances towards the end count, there was little real hushed playing, notably from the strings. Bruckner sometimes speaks sotto voce