This evening of music that poses questions coincided with the death of the visionary physicist Stephen Hawking whose “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change” saying might have been the theme of a programme that touched on the indomitable spirit of its three composers.
Beethoven had little choice but to adapt to his changing circumstances as increasing deafness ultimately prevented him from performing his E-flat Piano Concerto at its first appearance in 1811. At the Lighthouse what became the ‘Emperor’ was given an emphatic account by Stephen Hough with an unfailingly supportive and decisive Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Thierry Fischer. Hough was a technically flawless advocate, muscular without being overbearing, and passionate with an impressive tonal palette, adjusting effortlessly to the piano’s role as protagonist or as being part of the collective mix, such as some fine pianissimos in which Hough and the BSO formed an ethereal micro-universe, an otherworldly quality that returned for the Adagio, notable for Hough’s delicate tracery, on the edges of audibility, amid a background of beautifully crafted strings and woodwinds. Only in the Finale did I feel Hough coarsened the Steinway’s upper reaches; that said, filigree passagework was deftly executed.
Following the interval, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, which poses “the perennial question of existence”, the BSO strings at their smoothest. Despite best efforts too from the woodwind quartet and off-stage trumpeter, the coughers and hackers did their best to shatter the mood of haunting mysticism. Fischer shaped the music’s short but infinite span with fidelity and infinite care, but the less-than-sensitive needed to understand that it would benefit from graveyard quietness. Fischer restrained any would-be clappers by launching directly into Brahms’s First Symphony – a theatrical masterstroke which neatly introduced the composer’s solution to post-Beethoven symphonic angst.
This was a forthright, pugnacious account, Fischer underlining the score’s dark colouring (contrabassoon more than usually prominent) and heroic ambition. The music’s natural curves and its logic (the exposition repeat was observed) could though have unfolded with a little more refinement and dynamic variety. A slightly-too-flowing tempo and acidic string tone robbed the Andante of serenity, notwithstanding Edward Kay’s eloquent oboe, and its concluding bars needed greater poise to allow Amyn Merchant’s violin to register effectively. The third movement was more about assertive rhythms than carefree charm, and the Finale at times was harried, expansive themes intense rather than exultant, although the trombones’ chorale was arresting, but Fischer’s tendency to push hard produced abrasive sounds, the work’s victory fiercely won – excitement without joy.