Terry Grimley looks at a multi-talented musician (and writer) who has enjoyed considerable success with the CBSO.
Pianist Stephen Hough enjoyed a personal triumph at the Proms on Tuesday with an acclaimed performance of Tchaikovsky’s rarely-heard Piano Concerto No.2 with Andris Nelsons and the CBSO.
However, Hough – who is performing all of Tchaikovsky’s concertos at this year’s Proms – will be recording the piece in Minnesota rather than Birmingham. It’s a pity, because he already has a remarkable record of success with the CBSO on disc.
His recording of the Saint-Saens concertos, with Sakari Oramo conducting, not only won the coveted Gramophone Record of the Year Award in 2002, but went on to be voted top Record of the Year last year in a special internet poll to mark 30 years of the awards.
Of the other two Record of the Year Awards collected by the CBSO during those 30 years (beginning with Mahler’s Symphony No.2, conducted by Simon Rattle, in 1988), another also featured Hough, with Lawrence Foster conducting two 19th century rarities by Sauer and Scharwenka. That was in 1996.
Hough first worked with the orchestra and its new music director Andris Nelsons earlier this month when they performed the Tchaikovsky concerto at the Lichfield Festival.
In his regular Daily Telegraph blog, Hough described the drive from the centre of Birmingham to the centre of Lichfield as “an astonishing lesson in English topography”, starting at Symphony Hall and taking in “wastelands of soulless, labyrinthine industrial parks” and “glorious open countryside with browsing cows and lush, green hedges”.
As he strikingly summed it up: “A half-hour, visual commentary on the mistakes and charms of the Midlands, which sold its soul for industrial progress over a century ago, and which has been slowly buying it back, at a very high rate of interest.”
But Hough was impressed by Lichfield, its cathedral and the restaurant Ego, where he enjoyed “one of the best mozzarella salads of my life”.
Hough, whose blogging threatens to be almost as stimulating as his piano-playing, also had some striking observations on one of his favourite paintings of Christ – The Man of Sorrows, by Petrus Christus, which he popped in to see at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery while rehearsing at Symphony Hall (Hough is also a composer, and his other reason for being in Birmingham last week was that his trio for piccolo, contrabassoon and piano was premiered at the International Double Reed Society’s annual conference).
He wrote: “Inexplicably this miniature masterpiece, by the most important disciple of Van Eyck and one of only three of his paintings in the UK, is tucked away at the back of a distant room (I think it might have been next to the broom cupboard) in a glass case with a bunch of other less-distinguished pieces of the period. It should be one of the glories of the whole collection and be impossible to see because of the numbers of visitors gazing up in rapture at its wondrous, anguished perfection.”
CBSO Prom. What the London critics said:
Hilary Finch, The Times:
“With the arrival of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Andris Nelsons, the Proms finally caught fire.”
Andrew Clements, The Guardian:
“Both conductor and orchestra were marvellous. Nelsons relished every detail of the instrumental palette in Casken’s piece and the immense dynamic range of the CBSO’s sound in the Firebird showed how playing regularly in a wonderful acoustic such as Birmingham’s Symphony Hall opens up so many more tonal possibilities to an orchestra that is prepared to use them.”
Barry Millington, Evening Standard:
“His fine players responsive to every gesture, Nelsons revelled in the languorous beauty of the score [of The Firebird], its silky, ultra-refined, kaleidoscopic textures.
As if the build-up in the final sections, superbly paced, were not thrilling enough, three trumpeters appeared in front of the organ to crown the closing bars from on high. Absolutely spine-tingling.”