This was an intriguing programme that celebrated the bicentenary of the births of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It neatly threw together music written for the monarch and that composed by her husband – a cultured man who not only wrote numerous songs (published by Metzler, London) but promoted music of his homeland and prompted the first performance in England of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Amongst the evening’s many delights were the sight of Queen Victoria’s own lavishly decorated Érard piano from 1856, on loan from the Royal Collection in Buckingham Palace.

Stephen Hough plays Queen Victoria’s Érard, loaned from Royal Collection by Her Majesty the Queen
© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019. Photography: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

It made a startling impact in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor (a work in three continuous movements and widely thought to have been a favourite of the sovereign’s) in which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment formed a sensitive partnership with Stephen Hough. However impressive the gilded piano looked, its impact was striking for both its clarity and intimacy. Its delicate sound within the vastness of the Hall seemed to present the aural equivalent of looking through a telescope the wrong way. Hough strode though the first movement’s flurry of scales, but at times his clean articulation could only just be heard over the orchestra. The more economically scored slow movement (mainly strings and woodwind) allowed the piano to emerge on more equal terms, Hough eloquent in Mendelssohn’s tender ruminations with subtle shading. Back to the earlier athleticism for the finale, where Ádám Fischer generated much excitement from his collaborators, clarity now uppermost and ending with an exhilarating coda. Further demonstration of Hough’s artistry could be heard in Chopin’s E flat Nocturne (Op. 9/2), played with exquisite gracefulness, dynamics at the close virtually off the radar yet projecting with bell-like transparency.

Alessandro Fisher, Stephen Hough and Queen Victoria’s Érard, loaned by HM the Queen
© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019. Photography: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Earlier the OAE had opened with a spirited rendition of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Victoria and Merrie England – a suite fashioned from his 1897 ballet – a score written to celebrate her majesty’s Diamond Jubilee and hastily assembled from other works while staying in Monte Carlo. Its three parts moved from an urbane opening, lightened by a frisky-sounding Druid’s March and on to a brief reference to Rule Britannia (with an echo of HMS Pinafore) before reaching a spirited May Day Festivities – the whole conjuring a jolly seaside romp from the end of a pier.

After the interval it was a rare opportunity to hear five of Prince Albert’s songs setting texts by his father, Ernest I of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Goethe and Ludwig Uhland. Alessandro Fisher’s suitably light tenor and cleanly delivered renditions could not disguise the drawing room style which, whilst accomplished in a Schubertian manner, held little more than passing charm. But throughout each song, Albert’s love for his queen glowed like a beacon. Hough responded with infinite care and distinction to the songs’ arpeggio accompaniments.

Ádám Fischer conducts the OAE
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Back to Mendelssohn with a characterful account of his Symphony no. 3 in A minor. Proceedings began with just the right colouration from woodwinds and violas to evoke the ruined chapel of Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace that inspired the composer’s first sketches. There followed a movement of raw energy pushed along by zippy tempi and no lack of restraint from trumpets and timpani. Gurgling woodwind and deft string articulation brought scintillation to the Vivace, while darker colouring and shapely phrasing heightened the devotional atmosphere of the Adagio. The finale was surefooted in its purpose, its noble coda life affirming. No wonder Mendelssohn was so popular in Victorian England.