Stephen Hough and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, 21st October 2016.
“I’m amazed he could play all those tunes without making any mistakes…without *any* paper!” Such was a little girl’s reaction after watching Stephen Hough play Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto. It was a brilliant, commanding performance, the kind of music-making that concert halls are built in the hope of hosting. As a performer, he was assured and gracious. We were given a hint of the power of the playing to come when a sound reflector was placed between the end of the piano and the cello section. (These are normally reserved for the players sitting directly in front of the noisy percussion and brass sections of the orchestra.)
About a third of the way into the first movement the orchestra play by themselves. Hough turned and faced his fellow musicians, listening and attending to their playing. The cadenza towards the end of the movement is a prime example of the sort of massive music for which Rachmaninov is loved. Hough proudly expresses the final statement of the melody in the piano’s upper register, supported by strong bass octaves and arpeggios in the left hand that span the entire keyboard. The frenetic music at the end is as if, with a flurry of indignation, the orchestra chases the piano out of the room and slams the door. Even though they know they’re not really supposed to, tonight’s audience can’t help but applaud a bit at this point!
The gorgeous second movement features some really exquisite playing from the entire ensemble. Hough contrasts the previous heft with wonderful, light decoration that plays across the orchestra’s repeat of the grand melody. The final scamper up the piano is beautifully executed and the last chords perfectly placed.
When the concerto’s third movement comes to its bombastic end, Hough is called back onto the stage for two more bows by the audience’s prolonged clapping. He sits down, gesturing that he’ll play a little something extra, and teases the opening chords of the beloved Second Rachmaninov Piano Concerto into a beautiful rendition of the song Moscow Nights.
The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Richard Farnes, opened the concert with a haunted account of Rachmaninov’s depiction of The Isle of the Dead. The murky sound world and the lurching rhythms vividly evoke the voyage of a boat bearing a casket to its final resting place – certainly  one for the Halloween playlists.
After the interval, we have Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, a glorious, exuberant work. One of the most compelling and endearing things about Beethoven’s music is that he was so successful in capturing the broad range of human emotion. This symphony sees him at the very height of his powers, having thoroughly broken the mould with his orchestral works in the previous decade.
There are many extraordinary moments in the score, and the NSO give a refreshing reading of the four movements. There is great humour in the first movement as it trips along with backslapping joviality. The second movement is played with a slightly different rhythmic detail than usual – a familiar work skilfully presented from a new angle. The third and fourth movements dance, the third shifting between a village square and a stately ballroom, the fourth bringing to mind a bawdy can-can.
An exhilarating night’s music, which brought a good few of the audience to their feet and sent all home with full hearts and smiling faces.
Rachmaninov – The Isle of the Dead
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 1
Beethoven – Symphony No. 7