Whilst the four composers featured in Tuesday night's concert were all French, the programming highlighted the stark transformation in French music after the advent of impressionism, with the Chabrier and Saint-Saëns sounding worlds apart from the Debussy and Ravel that followed. 

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

The Royal Philharmonic burst into action with a lively account of Chabrier's España. The unrelenting vivacity and vibrant orchestration of this piece would make giving a limp, subdued account almost a more difficult task. Nevertheless, it was an engaging opening. 

After winning unanimous praise for his recordings of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concertos, the chance to hear Stephen Hough in the Piano Concerto no. 5 in F major was a tantalising prospect. The concerto is dubbed the “Egyptian”, as usual, this moniker did not come from Saint-Saëns himself but was added later when it was discovered this concerto was composed during one of his annual summer trips to Luxor. Stephen Hough possesses a rare magnetism as a performer, when matched with his technical brilliance the results can be electrifying, and they certainly were. The popular perception of Saint-Saëns is that, whilst hugely prodigious, he ultimately spent most of his long life a conservative, rallying against the progressive French musical landscape of the early 20th century. However, this too rarely performed concerto was a revelation. The Egyptian-influenced melodies sang out over exciting chord structures which, whilst hardly being Schoenbergian, were undoubtedly bold for 1896. 

Saint-Saëns was said to play the most difficult passages with an incredible lightness of touch and ease and there is an ever-present need when performing his piano works to emulate that. I can think of no better pianist that Stephen Hough to take on this challenge. The second movement a quasi-Andante that opens with a scherzo was a particular highlight, with Hough and the orchestra responding to the ever-shifting mood. 

Hough joined the audience for the second half, which set off a flurry of congratulations, requests for autographies and, perhaps disconcertingly, 'selfies'. It opened with Debussy's Images pour orchestre, a triptych composed between 1905-1912 and, curiously for Debussy, all showing a very direct influence of folk music.

The first section Gigues can be challenging to bring off. Debussy uses the English folk melodies in an idiosyncratic way, far removed from the contemporaneous pastoral language of Vaughan Williams. It seemed a bit drab and lacking in focus following the Saint-Saëns, and my attention wavered until the ebullient Ibéria burst into life; another Spanish inspired piece although far more subtle than the Chabrier. “Le matin d'un jour de fête” the final section of this middle panel depicting the excited villages awakening on festival day, was a magical moment; the major key, the brass and the tubular bell rising out of the preceding subdued tonal ambiguity. 

The break between the second and third sections (“Rondes de printemps”) was not clearly defined, which detracted from the sense of three contained and differing 'images'. It was an overall assured performance however it perhaps took a while for the ear to adjust after the first half. 

The concert concluded with Ravel's La valse, a dark, relentless piece that builds to a maniacal conclusion. Originally conceived as a ballet, it is now more often performed as a concert piece. Listening to this macabre piece, I was struck by how starkly it contrasted with the Chabrier. This concert was truly a journey from the light into the darkness. The thundering, fortissimo climax was suitably raucuous. 

The concert was billed as 'French favourites', although this might have over-estimated the popularity of some of the pieces included, there were some ear-opening moments and anyone who wishes to label Saint-Saëns a conservative needs to buy a ticket to Stephen Hough's next performance of his work. 

****1