The Bristol Classical Players and conductor Tom Gauterin normally focus their concerts around a series of works from a particular era or composer, but this time they did something a little different. We heard the rarely performed Piano Concerto in G minor by Dvořák, sandwiched between Beethoven’s Fidelio overture and his Fifth Symphony.

Stephen Hough © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Stephen Hough
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

As far as was evident from the programme, there was no real link to Dvořák in this Beethoven-heavy programme. It stood out and contrasted, but not in a bad way – it was certainly the highlight of the evening, in fact. What with the recent surge of Beethoven concerts in Bristol after the Beethoven series at the Colston Hall earlier this year, it was refreshing to hear a more unusual piece that is less frequently played. Dvořák only composed three concertos in his lifetime, and this one was the first and is now the least known. With Stephen Hough on St George’s Steinway piano at the front of a crowded stage, the evening came to life. A calm, still Hough played the opening rising melody with poise and grace. As the music swelled, Hough’s motions became more dramatic and he pulled the orchestra into the music.

This is Dvořák’s only piano concerto, and Hough believes that it is more challenging than Liszt’s famously difficult pieces – and that this is the real reason that it’s rarely performed. It was clear that it challenged Hough, but nonetheless he rose admirably to the challenge. The second movement (Andante sostenuto) was the real highlight of this concerto. It was a soft, subtle and gentle performance in which the piano and orchestra were at their best together. Hough’s light yet concise touch on the keys made it a pleasure to watch, and the orchestra kept the dynamics controlled to a level that highlighted the melody in the piano.

With 50 members of the orchestra performing, it was a bit of a squeeze on stage behind the piano for the first half of the evening, but worth it for the size of the sound. It was hard to see Gauterin’s command over the orchestra in Beethoven’s Fidelio overture, but he didn’t do a bad job at all. In fact, he was the real soul of the orchestra. The tutti moments in which the orchestra played in unison were really strong. From what could be viewed on the stage, the parts of the concerto where Hough and Gauterin had their heads heavily involved in the music, drew the orchestra in closer.

The real gem of the evening was Stephen Hough’s solo piano encore. He played Dvořák’s Humoreske and although it was slower and had less play on rhythm, it was a heart-warming rendition, receiving a light laugh from the audience when it started, and a standing ovation and stomping applause at the end.

In the second half of the concert the piano was moved off the stage and the Bristol Classical Players became the focal attention. The Bristol Classical Players formed in 2008 to perform the nine Beethoven symphonies and this second half of the concert saw them reflecting back on their roots with a performance of the Fifth. The famous chords of the opening sounded brave and bold. There were some little moments that slipped out of time and tune, but these were pulled back together by Gauterin’s energy and enthusiasm with the baton.

The evening had a rather humorously long ending. In the last movement, Beethoven plays with his audience with an ending that always resolves but never ends, leaving everyone unsure whether to clap for several minutes. It was great fun and provided a triumphant end to the night. All in all, this was an entertaining evening, with relentless enthusiasm and energy from Gauterin and a wonderfully intimate performance from Hough.