January 25 2019
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Operatic excerpts and super-virtuoso concerto-playing make for a concert of high drama
Stephen Hough’s recording of the Saint-Saens piano concertos is the stuff of legends. Not only did it win a Gramophone CD of the Year award in 2002 but it also went on to top the list of all Gramophone winners over 30 years. So expectations were high on Friday night when he joined with the Hallé, under their conductor Sir Mark Elder, to perform the 5th concerto.
It’s a work which combines the exotic with jaw-dropping pianistic fireworks. It got its ‘Egyptian’ nickname because of the Nubian love song which crops up in the slow movement, not to mention various night-time sound effects such as crickets and croaking frogs on the banks of the Nile. But it travels much further afield than Egypt, including touches of Javanese gamelan and Spanish flamenco. In some hands the music can seem like an inconsequential series of musical postcards – but not in Stephen Hough’s. The subtlety, colour range and vividly pictorial quality of his playing made for a memorable performance. As did the super-virtuoso elements of the finale: a musical high-wire act, hands disappearing in a blur, shamelessly theatrical, heart-thumpingly exhilarating.
Opera was the theme of the rest of the Hallé’s programme. Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini was an almost complete failure when premiered in 1838 but luckily the overture was salvaged for concert performance, and a very effective curtain-raiser it proved to be on Friday, the Hallé injecting it with plenty of ebullient brilliance.
In the second half France gave way to Germany as Wagner took centre-stage. For those daunted by the five-hour experience of complete operas there were two sets of orchestral excerpts. Lohengrin was represented by the delicate beauty of its Act 1 Prelude (with superbly controlled shimmering Hallé violins high in their register) and the rousingly festive Prelude to Act 3.
Sir Mark’s own arrangement of orchestral music from Wagner’s Mastersingers ended the concert, starting with the darkly brooding Act 3 Prelude before lightening the mood with the Apprentices’ Dance which segued (surprisingly but effectively) into the opera’s overture, a suitably grand way to end an evening of high drama.