BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Stephen Hough perform Russian masterpieces

Elizabeth Davis enjoys an evening of Romanticism in Cardiff

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A sobering thought this: Rachmaninov wasn’t quite 18 when he started work on his First Piano Concerto. Of course, he revised it radically some years later – but who hasn’t come across a piece of work they did as a teenager, and cringed?

Stephen Hough was the pianist in this performance at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jurjen Hempel (a late stand-in for Tadaaki Otaka). Hough brought an impish quality to the work, a playfulness which suited the youthful energy of this Concerto. The lyrical second movement was exquisite and the work’s more meretricious passages incorporated effortlessly into the melodic line.

Following the barn-storming closing bars of the Concerto Hough returned to the stage for something very different. His encore was his own bluesy arrangement of the song ‘Moscow Nights’ – which was a delightful miniature with which to close the first half.

The second half was taken up with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. The work tells the story of Byron’s Gothic dramatic poem, Manfred, about a young man who seeks oblivion: ‘Oh, that I were/ The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,/ A living voice, a breathing harmony,/ A bodiless enjoyment – born and dying/ With the blessed tone which made me.’ The piece follows him as he wanders in the Alps, tormented by his thoughts and the memory of his beloved, Astarte. On his journey he meets an Alpine fairy and simple Alpine folk, before finally arriving at an ‘infernal orgy’ and giving his soul up to the demons who hound him.

The musicians of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales threw themselves into the spirit of the piece – the first movement’s energy was irresistible and the sound filled the hall in a way the orchestra hadn’t quite managed in the Rachmaninov. And in the more delicate moments – the appearance of the fairy, for example – Hempel and the musicians made us strain to catch every detail. The work’s third movement describing the ‘simple’ mountain people veered into territory more twee, but with the hellish bacchanal in the fourth movement, the audience were swept back up into Manfred’s chaotic, tortured mind thanks to Hempel’s pinpoint conducting.

A measure of the concert’s success: it came as a bit of shock to discover we were still in Cardiff at the end.

Elizabeth Davis is the editorial assistant of BBC Music Magazine