Perhaps it was the concert-pleasing programme of Rachmaninov and Beethoven or maybe it was the magnetism of pianist Stephen Hough, but whatever the cause, what is certain is that the Friday evening audience came out in their droves comparable to a sell-out concert of a diva. To be sure, the programme was attractive – as enticing as pot-roast pheasant on a cold autumnal day. While the two composer programme might appear limited on paper, there was a breadth of vision to the music on offer. Rachmaninov’s sombre and suggestive The Isle of the Dead contrasted well his youthful, passionate Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor, while Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony fizzed with irrepressible energy and drive.

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

From the start, Richard Farnes showed himself to be an expressive conductor, living in the moment of the music, whose large gestures consistently brought out the lyrical side of the NSO. The sinister pizzicato of the double basses and the lugubrious bassoons which open The Isle of the Dead instantly created a miasma of unease and tension. Farnes allowed the music to surge forward with the long lines on the cellos while the fff C chord was turbulent, the timpani resembling menacing thunder growling close by. The NSO imbued the climax with an emotional intensity which was broken with startlingly vehemence by the Dies irae motif. Ending as mysteriously as it had begun, Farnes let his hand drop very slowly, holding the audience within the spell.

While not as popular as the second and the third piano concerti, Rachmaninov’s First is an utterly bewitching work and every bit as fiendish to play as its successors. Dripping with heart-stoppingly beautiful, romantic melodies that are his hallmark, it also includes passagework at lightning speed which is enough to make any aspiring pianist wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. For renowned Rachmininov interpreter Hough, this was never the case. Last night’s performance was a masterful interpretation: finding a rich tonal sound, Hough explored the dark passions that lurk beneath the surface of the music.

Every so often, as in the muscular chordal section of the first movement cadenza, the pent-up passion erupted and blazed forth with spine-tingling effect. At other times, Hough was simply content to sit back, as if in the comfort of his sitting room, savouring the haunting melody of the main theme of the first movement or teasing out the improvisatory nature of the second. Farnes and the NSO responded in kind providing a suitably lush backing, the string section employing fulsome vibrato. Clarke’s solo moment in the recap of the first movement was nothing short of magical and, in a Proustian type of way, I found myself trying to extend and enjoy each note before it disappeared irrevocably leaving behind only a memory. The technical challenges of this concerto were wonderfully dispatched by Hough, and if he didn’t succeed in making it sound easy (something that is impossible surely), he certainly did conceal how utterly fiendish most of this concerto is to play. An unusual encore followed that was Hough’s own arrangement of Solovyov-Sedoi's Moscow Nights, starting and ending with the opening chords of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2. Hopefully, this represented an augury of the complete cycle of Rachmaninov’s concerti performed by this consummate musician.

The second half was entirely taken up by Beethoven’s utterly captivating Seventh. Ever since first hearing this as a nine year old, I confess to have been utterly captivated by its rhythmic drive, its irrepressible good humour and its palpable excitement, all of which were present in last night’s performance. The sforzandi, the hints at different modulations, the sharp bow strokes and antiphonal exchanges all added to the sense of fun of the first movement while Farnes’ finely graded palette of dynamics helped maximise the tension and impact throughout. The second movement was taken a shade too quickly so that the music lost something of its majestic character. Clarinettist John Finucane engaged in some nice dialogue with the horn while the oboes’ and flutes’ melodies were beautifully intermingled. The third movement Presto went at breakneck speed which resulted in an exhilarating performance swaggering merrily along, though at times the rhythmic exchanges between the sections could have been crisper. The brass, particularly the trumpets, sounded frayed towards the end resulting in some infelicity of intonation. This continued on into the fourth movement where their less than polished tone detracted from what was otherwise an electrifying account of the Allegro con brio. In spite of some terrific moments, the overall effect was less than convincing.

***11