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Review: Beethoven First Piano Concerto at RLPO ****1/2

This week appears to have been a warm walk down memory lane for the prolific polymath – and prolific Tweeter – Stephen Hough.

Back in the street where he first learned to play the piano, if social media is to be believed the internationally-acclaimed virtuoso from the Wirral seems to be having a fine time. And he is definitely in fine form.

Hough is home to perform all five Beethoven piano concertos between now and June, and launched the cycle with a delicate and enchanting performance of the German Romantic’s Concerto No 1 at the Philharmonic last night.

If you didn’t catch it in person, never fear because Radio 3 were there to record it for later broadcast.

Hough as a pianist is physically unshowy – he leaves the flamboyance to others and lets his hands do the talking.

And his slender pianist fingers were in ebullient mood, the melody rippling and eddying like water under the seemingly lightest of touches while Vasily Petrenko kept the orchestra in perfectly nuanced step with the wonderful fluidity, particularly in the loveliest of largos.

There’s a great deal of effort that goes in to something that appears so effortless.

Beethoven’s first concerto was actually the second he published, but both his early works (Hough performs the second concerto – penned first - with the Phil this Sunday) have a light, airy texture, more Mozart than later Beethoven maelstrom.

A return to the Philharmonic Hall for Stephen Hough (top - photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke)

So it was a no brainer to start the programme with an Amadeus limb-loosener in the form of the sparky overture from his harem opera Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (Sunday’s concert opts for The Magic Flute).

After the interval, and the presentation of the music world’s prestigious Salomon Prize to violinist David Rimbault, the Phil immersed itself in a double fantasia of Debussy, from the warm nights of Spain (and the soporifically stifling circle at Hope Street) to the cool waters of La Mer.

It’s not a night out without a heady mix of castanets and celeste, the former a rat tat tatting opening to Debussy’s Iberia, the latter evoking a night-time wistfulness, while the percussion also had plenty to get its teeth in to in a cheerfully bright and glossy ‘the morning of a feast day’.

Rather incongruously, Debussy completed the orchestration for his symphonic sketch piece La Mer not in some romantic or rugged French coastal spot but in Eastbourne.

Under Petrenko’s baton it was less genteel Edwardian Sussex seaside town and more sun-blessed, wind-lashed North West coast, including a radiantly-realised sunrise, and some ominous orchestral gusts and satisfyingly turbulent moments.

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