★★★★ ½ Stephen Hough performs an outstanding piano concerto to conclude the TSO’s Beethoven Celebration.

Federation Concert Hall
August 28, 2015

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has this month thrown a Beethoven Celebration, teaming up with English pianist Stephen Hough to perform each of the composer’s five piano concertos. The series has paired each performance with works by Richard Strauss, and this concert opens with Strauss’s Serenade in E flat, Op. 7. It’s an immaculate showcase of the orchestra’s wind and horn sections, with the addition of a double bass and tuba. The group demonstrates skilful ensemble playing – tight with well-controlled intonation. Players sacrifice their independence as they refrain from distracting vibrato and displays of ego. Instead, they project subtlety and positivity in this opening to a charming evening.

But wait, there’s more. Strings, percussion, piano and harp join the group in Le bourgeois gentilhomme – yet another work by Strauss. This suite draws from Moliere’s comédie-ballet of the same name, and like much of Strauss’s lighter works is filled with sweet nothings. The Fencing Master is a comical dance, while Prelude to Act II (Intermezzo) feels as pleasant as a moment of lightly fluttering leaves in a breeze. The Menuett of Lully is a standout with a well-crafted juxtaposition between heavy low-end themes and clean upper strings. The lower strings also achieve quite a bit of power in their pizzicatos. Most movements are first-violin-heavy, and Entrance of Cleonte (after Lully) acts as a slower reflection on the night that’s been, in the style of an early music dance.

The concert’s title piece comes post-interval – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat, Op. 73 (Emperor). It was Beethoven’s final piano concerto, and by the time it premiered in 1811 the composer was suffering from deafness. The work is performed here by English virtuoso Stephen Hough, who takes his seat at the piano and commences the opening scalic passages. His posture is relaxed and as his right hand works its magic, his left sits limply in his lap – a nonchalant habit he returns to throughout the evening. When the music allows him to rest, he turns around and faces away from us to watch the orchestra – perhaps positioning himself in an act of selflessness to refocus the audience’s attention toward the other musicians. Or maybe he was simply enjoying the music with the rest of us.

It’s appealing to watch Hough so obviously in his comfort zone on the stage. And his playing? Outstanding. From the opening Allegro, the pianist is masterfully responsive to the subtle characteristics of every instrumental section – and the mood of every phrase. He contrasts moments of extreme gentleness with pounds of delight in this E-flat Major work, and his repeated passages and rhythms are so consistent it’s hard to believe a human is capable of achieving them.

The Adagio un poco mosso moves seamlessly into the Rondo (Allegro), and toward the end of the third movement Hough joins with the timpani’s gentle military rhythm. Together they fade away, hinting at the conclusion before conductor Marko Letonja unites them with the orchestra for a startlingly big finish. A moment of warmth is shared by Hough and Letonja as they hug after the performance, marking a marvellous close to the Hobart performances of the TSO’s Beethoven Celebration series.