Music review: BBC SSO & Stephen Hough, City Halls, Glasgow

Pianist Stephen Hough gave a fiercely direct performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, writes Ken Walton

BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow ****

There was no doubt who won the popular vote in this fine BBC SSO concert. As pianist Sir Stephen Hough tossed aside the final throwaway lines of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the audience erupted.

It was nothing if not a highly personal account – something that’s wonderfully refreshing when it comes to such a potboiler. An overriding intellectuality governed the seriousness of Hough’s performance: fiercely direct in its incisive rhythmic articulation; hints of a dreamy, impressionist sheen where generous pedalling imaginatively blurred the textures; even suggestions of darkness where woozy elasticity instilled a sense of mild grotesquerie.

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Stephen Hough PIC: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty ImagesStephen Hough PIC: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
Stephen Hough PIC: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

The SSO went with the flow, its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth guiding a sharp response to Hough’s resolute idiosyncrasies. It may not always have felt like familiar Rachmaninov, more head than heart, but it was delivered with evident belief it had something vital and provocative to say. As if to prove his softer side, Hough offered Grieg’s beguiling Nocturne as a melting encore.

Thursday’s other big success was Stravinsky’s 1928 tribute to Tchaikovsky, his ballet music The Fairy’s Kiss. Drawing on generally obscure themes by Tchaikovsky, the deliberate influence of the latter shone through this illuminating performance with grace and affection, refreshed of course by Stravinsky’s jabbing neo-classicism. Invigorating clarity emanated from Wigglesworth’s businesslike motivation, as did the scintillating pleasure implicit in this score’s sparkling detail.

Opening the programme, Hans Abrahamsen’s Three Fairy-Tale Pictures from his opera The Snow Queen wasn’t as wholly convincing. Potentially fascinating for its juicy multi-layerings of mood and tempo and its haunting textural sensitivity, the latter quality seemed undernourished, short-changed in scope and purpose, in a performance that felt a bit like an exploratory first run-through. There’s more to Abrahamsen, the SSO’s composer-in-residence, than was witnessed on this occasion.

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