The applause, from the orchestra, at the end of Stephen Hough’s performance of Brahms’ expansive, turbulent first piano concerto was unexpected and also very welcome in a concert devoid of an actual, live audience.
I admit I have not always warmed to livestream performances and have watched very few over the past year. But I applaud any artist or organisation which has made every effort to keep the music playing and musicians employed and, importantly, paid during what has been an incredibly difficult year for an already precarious profession. Chapeau to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (my “local” orchestra, since I moved to Dorset in 2018) for keeping us engaged and entertained with a wonderfully varied weekly programme of music and soloists (Paul Lewis, Gabriella Montero, Benjamin Grosvenor and Sunwook Kim, amongst others), presented via livestream and available for 30 days post-concert via the BSO website. They have also found a way to successfully monetise livestream concerts.
Livestream concerts are all we keen music lovers and concert-goers have at present, until the government deems it safe to reopen music venues and opera houses (probably in mid- to late May). I actually watched the BSO/Hough livestream two days after the live broadcast (one of the benefits of livestream is that one can watch it at one’s convenience, and on multiple occasions if desired!), on the first anniversary of my last visit to central London for a concert at Wigmore Hall (of course, at the time I didn’t realise it would be my last visit to a major London concert venue, in the company of a good friend, for a year; the coronavirus was only just beginning to be something of a concern back in February 2020…..).
Stephen Hough has a knack of selecting programmes which seem to perfectly chime with our curious, troubled times – for example, his latest release Vida Breve) – and the Brahms concerto is another good example. A work of restlessness and turbulence, seraphic serenity, and an energetic Hungarian dance as a finale, it seems to reflect the anxiety and hope which colour these strange days of lockdown.
Of course, Brahms didn’t know his music would resonate in this way when he wrote his first piano concerto. It’s the work of a young man, full of passion, intense in its emotional landscape and symphonic in scale and organisation. From the opening with its thunderous, ominous timpani and driving strings, its no-holds-barred orchestral writing, one has the sense of the young Brahms setting out his compositional stall with authority and maturity.
The piano is not always a soloist here, but also an obbligato instrument which takes over material from the orchestra and comments or expands on it. Between the BSO, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, and Stephen Hough there was a constant sense of sympathetic cooperation (sometimes these big romantic piano concertos can feel like an immense tussle between soloist and orchestra). Phrases were sensitively shaped and tempi allowed a certain suppleness. Hough has a remarkable instinct for natural rubato, to highlight certain phrases or harmonies, emphasise certain emotions or perfectly time the delayed gratification which we crave in music such as this; it was especially apparent in the seraphic slow movement, its hymn-like tranquillity and introspection redolent of the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto. This was complemented by some particularly fine bassoon playing.
The Hungarian dance finale was a release of pressure from the adagio, alternately thunderously energetic and graceful, Hough switching between sparkling, fleet-fingered passages and sections of tender intimacy (and a certain intimacy imbues the entire concerto, despite its expansive scale – when Brahms is intimate, he is really really intimate!). Perhaps the greatest benefit of a filmed concert for the ‘piano nerd’, is that one is treated to close ups of the pianist’s hands and fingers in a way one could never see them in a live concert, and Hough has a remarkable economy in his playing, free of gestures which only serves to highlight the intensity of the music he is performing.
Overall, the AV quality of this livestream was impressive. Clever camera angles disguised the fact that the players were socially-distanced, and the camera did not linger long on the empty auditorium, instead offering viewers some excellent close-ups of individual players, conductor and of course soloist.
This concert is available on demand at bsolive.com until March 26
The ‘BSO At Home’ livestream performances from its home at The Lighthouse, Poole, continue on 3 March. Further information here