The concert began with Albert Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane, a light and frothy ballet suite full of evocative mischief and cartoon musical narration. There’s something inherently ‘external’ about ballet music, but with those limitations the piece was very colourful and comic, if not especially original.
Stephen Hough’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was uneven. It was either dull or out of control at crucial moments, but there were a few bars of excitement when Hough accidentally improved the harmony of certain passages. Hough never commanded the piano or the piece in any way, and his playing was frankly characterless. This concerto should have outshone Roussel’s ballet work, but instead actually suited it. Judging by the sound of the applause from the coughers, sneezers, cup droppers and in-between-movement clappers this was a barnstorming performance.
The orchestra woke up and came to life with Thea Musgrave’s Rainbow. Delicate, twinkling music to begin with, rushing to thrilling heights like Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy being played three times too fast. The teasing, bewitching harmony turned sour and pounded like a soft demolition ball, eliciting brief shards of light from the harp and vibraphone. The programme notes did the piece no favours at all, describing very narrowly what the piece was ‘about’, but Rainbow seemed to twitch and move like a living, conscious thing rather than a depiction of a landscape.
There was some fantastic playing in Debussy’s La Mer, especially from the flutes and percussion, but Debussy has perhaps been too accurate in his depiction of the sea – it goes up and it goes down. And that’s about it. With everything moving together to form a mass of undulating sound no instruments can veer the thing off its trudging course. There are effective tumultuous passages which were played very well, but not overwhelmingly so.