“Sibelius in spats”

Last night to hear Stephen Hough with the SSO conducted by Hugo Wolf (that’s a joke).

The program (entitled “Power and Panache”) was:

TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No.2 (original version)
WALTON Symphony No.1

Hugh Wolff conductor
Stephen Hough piano

I was keenly anticipating Hough’s second (Tchaikovsky) piano concerto and I was not disappointed. For me, this was definitely the “panache” part of the program’s title, though not without power when required. Hough’s playing is romantic. He has a kind of “cool” cross-aspect which technically has probably something to do with his articulation and characteristic phrase-shaping (just to think of two aspects of his playing).

One of Hough’s current themes is that musicians should learn music primarily from the scores (ie: not initially by listening to recordings). I wonder whether, on one level, what he is reacting to is a change in young musicians’ practice which itself probably is an incident of the digital revolution. I found the first movement incredibly familiar and I soon decided (“decided” because at this distance of time it could easily be a false memory) that this was probably because when I was about sixteen I’d played the second piano part for another pupil of my teacher. Somewhere in a box of old music at the top of my bookshelf may still be the early-to-mid-seventies photocopy on a black scrap-book, lent to me by my teacher for the purpose. My guess is that we only did the first movement, because I didn’t know the other movements nearly so well. I doubt if there was much of a chance for me to have listened to a recording of it then.

Thomasina has recounted that, at a pre-concert talk, Hough described the Walton Symphony No 1 as “Sibelius in spats.” Brilliant! But whose spats were they? Elgar’s? [My first thought.] More likely (on chronological grounds and for the sheer sake of taking it further) the Sitwells’. Edith would have told everyone they were hers, but they were probably Osbert’s which he never wore.

Sibelius was really big in the Anglophone world (and almost nowhere else outside Finland) in the thirties and Constant Lambert, a fellow guest at the Sitwells’, one of Sibelius’s advocates. One aspect of Sibelius which I heard in the Walton was that way of, sometimes quite slowly, putting together an enormous musical jigsaw puzzle of intersecting patterns (not strictly speaking a technically feasible metaphor) which sometimes comes to unanimous climaxes but at other times shifts in an almost kaleidoscopic way. The other thing was a kind of gigantic approach to orchestration, which is not just a question of scale of the orchestra, but also the use of big blocks of orchestra to lay out the juxtaposed patterns.

The symphony, which was definitely the “power” part of the program’s title, is loud. It’s grim but also brash in a slightly modernist but also, at least associatively, imperialist (thought of as a good thing) way. I heard Elgarian touches, mostly, I think, a matter of wind and, more particularly, British brass writing.

If I can and a suitable seat is available I hope to go again on Monday. In the hope that I can I shall leave any further comment until after that, save that fairness requires me to say that the French horn section led by Ben Jacks had a very good night.

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