Review: BBC Philharmonic and Stephen Hough at Sheffield City Hall, 14.02.2014

 

The softly struck note sounds and then is held, and is held, and is held, and then slowly starts to fade away until, just before it falls silent a slight movement of a finger causes it to be resolved and released. The piano and the pianist can say no more for the moment. The performer lifts his right hand away from the keyboard and lays it across his left which he’s resting on his leg. He slowly looks up as though waking and turns first his head and then his body towards the orchestra, whose presence he seems to have suddenly remembered.

 

The pianist is Stephen Hough, the orchestra the BBC Philharmonic and the piece the ‘Quasi adagio’ from Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, which they performed at Sheffield’s City Hall on Friday 14th February 2014 as part of the Valentine’s evening programme.

 

It was a magical moment in a work that offers everything from virtuosic bombast, as in the opening few bars, to subtle chamber music and extended solo parts. At times Liszt almost seems to forget he has an orchestra at his disposal. At others the virtuoso can afford to pause, turn and appreciate the playing of this same orchestra, as Hough himself did.

 

Hough is the most poetic – the most Romantic – of modern pianists and therefore perfectly suited to Liszt, that master of pianistic texture. On the night he played the work with great deftness and depth, employing just a little more rubato than he did in his 2011 recording of the work for Hyperion. The emphasis upon the cantabile line of the melody in the right hand part was a reminder that Liszt was a great tunesmith and not just a writer of storms and cadenzas.

 

Hough had the stage presence to carry off this concerto. Sitting at the keyboard, his sombre black jacket buttoned at his throat, he looked not entirely unlike Liszt himself in the 1860s. His fringe bounced and flicked, like Juanjo Mena’s conducting baton, in time to the music and with every chord struck.

 

After four calls for bows, Hough treated his audience to an encore: his own adaption of Jules Massenet’s ‘Crépuscule’, which the pianist has previously recorded for his French Album. This is a miniature of great beauty and was played with a tenderness and unpretentiousness that was truly affecting.

 

The Liszt Concerto was the standout section of a concert programme that had begun with the BBC Philharmonic performing excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. They opened with ‘Montagues and Capulets’, in which the high notes seemed to slide off the strings, a ghostly effect before the entrance of that famous melody.

 

This uncanny effect highlighted the way the music occupied a real physical space, the strings here, the woodwind there. This kind of musical and spatial delineation was explored further in the Liszt Concerto and more noticeably still in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which work filled the second half of the programme.

 

The choice of Romeo and Juliet was appropriate given the date. However, the choice of specific excerpts was surprising. Yes, that famous melody was present and correct but the orchestra didn’t play the ‘Balcony’ scene or the music from the ballet’s latter sections, preferring to close on the undeniably dramatic but not ever so romantic ‘Death of Tybalt’.

 

The playing, especially Hough’s, was brilliant. However, I might wonder about the balance and pacing of the programme. The concert as a whole felt a little uneven with the second half feeling anticlimatic after the Lisztian fireworks.

 

 

© James Holden 2014

Published Sunday 16th February 2014