This all-Brahms concert with Lionel Bringuier conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra had as its centerpiece the Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor with Stephen Hough as soloist. As has been his hallmark over decades of concertizing, Hough has great poise at the keyboard, and in his hands the Brahms D Minor was given a performance that reminded us once again how important this piece is in the Romantic piano concerto repertoire. There isn't anything in the least revolutionary about the score, but there's a seriousness about it that makes it stand well-apart from the surface showiness of other concertante pieces being written at the time.

Stephen Hough
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Hough gave full measure to the score, emphasizing the grand sweep of the melodic lines while delivering a performance that was note-perfect and technically flawless.  There was none of the bravado that other pianists are tempted to exhibit in the agitato sections of the first movement's Maestoso. With Hough there were no throwaway moments; instead, each phrase was well thought-out, calibrated to fit within the larger arc of the musical narrative. Bringuier and the London players were deft collaborators, playing out in select moments but never in competition with the pianist. The LPO woodwinds blended beautifully here and in the other movements of the concerto.

The Adagio began with chorale-like strings presenting Brahms’ trademark long phrases, with clarinets and oboes providing colorful commentary along the way. Hough played with a quiet majesty, drawing out the poignant quality of the melodic lines – in the process turning this Adagio, which can sometimes seem a little anti-climactic following the imposing first movement, into its own special adventure.

Stephen Hough and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

The concluding Rondo was taken at a more relaxed tempo than is often heard, which gave the movement a Schumannesque quality. The middle section was satisfyingly lyrical, which along with impressive strings in the brief fugal section, led to an impressive coda that ended the concerto in grand fashion. Indeed, “grand” fairly describes this entire performance of the concerto.

Opening the program was another Brahms offering, the Tragic Overture. Even though composed decades later, it’s interesting to be reminded how little-changed Brahms' compositional style was between the two pieces, underscoring that early Brahms works like the First Piano Concerto were mature beyond their years. Bringuier led a virile performance that delivered the music’s broad strokes highly effectively. There was impressive musical interplay between the woodwinds and horns midway through the overture, along with misterioso string passages. Bringuier's was an unfussy reading – and all the more impressive for that.

Lionel Bringuier conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

As expected, the London Philharmonic’s stellar orchestral playing was on fine display throughout the concert, at least aurally. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the mood-lighting, which in the Tragic Overture conjured up visions of what a barren landscape must look like following the detonation of an atomic bomb. In the concerto, the apocalyptic, rust-colored scenario was replaced by a brighter stage, but with a hazy film hovering over the proceedings like a smoky mist. The lighting engineers really ought to deep-six the poor-man's “rock concert-wannabe” visual hijinks and simply let the music speak for itself; Brahms, Bringuier, Hough and the LPO can do perfectly well without it.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on Marquee TV