BBCNOW/Hempel/Hough – review

St David's Hall, Cardiff

Byron called his poem Manfred a metaphysical drama, but when Tchaikovsky used the story of self-imposed exile as the basis of his programmatic symphony, the parallels with his own personal torment, his homosexuality, must have been painful. In performance, the score's mix of existential angst and Alpine escapism tends to produce a similarly mixed response: Toscanini thought it Tchaikovsky's greatest music; Leonard Bernstein rubbished it.

Conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Dutchman Jurjen Hempel's interpretation of the first movement was very convincing, the thematic material muscular and sharply defined; the thunder of the coda wonderfully resonant. Yet the scherzo's depiction of the spirit world conveyed too little of the highly imaginative instrumental colour and, in the Andante's pastoral idyll, tension sagged. But Hempel made the fugal writing of the finale taut enough, and positioning the bell that tolls for Manfred high at the top of the concert-hall lent an atmospheric frisson to the closing death scene.

In the first half of the programme, Stephen Hough was the soloist in Rachmaninov's first Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, a work reflecting the passion and remarkable artistic vision of the composer as a young man. Hough's awesome pianism meant that the pyrotechnics were delivered with powerful force, but balanced by his poetic shaping of Rachmaninov's lyrical lines and a gossamer touch for the delicate filigree writing.

This is a work that deserves to be heard more often, but few can get to its core as Hough does. The encore that followed was the most elegant of conceits: a personal tribute to Rachmaninov, initially deeply serious but then wittily referencing even more popular Russian themes. Hough's piercing musical intellect clearly doesn't preclude the occasional bit of counter-intelligence.


Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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