Two encores, a virtuoso and a cracking orchestra. This concert truly celebrated the best of British music and musicians, as the first concert in St George’s “Best of British” concert season. The scene was set with an array of red, white and blue amongst the orchestra in several forms: bow ties, flags, ribbons and other accessories. The stage was built forward for this occasion with an impressively large group of instrumentalists for the Bristol Classical Players surrounding a grand piano for the internationally renowned pianist Stephen Hough. Hough was present not only as a virtuoso pianist, but also as a composer.

Stephen Hough © Andrew Crowley
Stephen Hough
© Andrew Crowley

The programme provided a variety of music, from Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel (also a composer and pianist) to the quintessentially British Enigma Variations by Elgar. The Bristol Classical Players played under the baton of Tom Gauterin, who displayed impressive talent, especially given he is mostly self-taught. He established himself as a conductor after his heavy involvement in the music scene at the University of Oxford.

The evening opened with Delius’ On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring. A short but pretty piece, it provided a softer introduction into the wonderful Hummel Piano Concerto in A minor. Stephen Hough came to the stage, nodded, smiled and played. What a sound. As a virtuoso pianist wrote it, it was challenging and full of energy. Even the quieter passages enabled Hough’s personality as a performer to ooze through the keys of the piano. St George’s is a great venue to be able to hear such a prestigious performer so close, as all of the subtle nuances of the music can be heard. I was able to see every movement of the performers and was absorbed into the music. The concerto became more and more pronounced and complicated as it developed, leading to some big chords on the piano that Hough dived into. It was an explosive and met with stomping and cheering. The result was a beautiful encore from Hough, at the end of the first half of the concert, of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major.

So not only did Hough let off a firework as a pianist, he let us in to an intimate and moving piece of his own. His cello concerto The Loneliest Wilderness, performed by Samara Ginsberg, is based on a song setting about an army officer who lost his company of soldiers in the war. Ginsberg was the perfect soloist to play the composition, as she has a wallowing vibrato in her playing style and gave a real sense of despair to the piece. Tentative and hesitant, the Bristol Classical Players were careful in their control of softer passages, all under the eye of Tom Gauterin, whose effort was clearly appreciated by Ginsberg, who gave him a high-five at the end. Stephen Hough was also very happy with the performance, taking his bow at the end. It was great to be able to see the switch before and after the interval of Hough from virtuoso to composer, and both roles suited him well – a multi-talented, true musician.

In contrast, the concert finished with the Enigma Variations, a series of witty caricatures of Elgar’s close friends. Full of British gusto and pride, the Bristol Classical Players performed this with bravado and comical personality. This orchestral group formed in 2008 to perform the Beethoven symphonies, and hasn’t stopped since. I certainly hope they perform more at St George’s. To keep the British theme going, they played an encore of Eric Coates’ Calling All Workers. It provided a sense of well-being and rounded off the night superbly.

The overall form of the programme did well to sandwich two emotionally heavy pieces with two pieces so light-hearted in nature. It seemed that everything was chosen carefully to relate to each other, but at the same time the programme was clever enough not to out-British itself.