Few pianists make a better case for the five Piano Concertos of Camille Saint-Saëns than Stephen Hough, here playing the ‘Egyptian’. It was created by the composer in 1896 for his Golden Jubilee concert celebrating his amazing fifty years before the public as a pianist and is a work of mercurial moods and frolicsome beauty. Whilst it is highly pictorial – written on holiday in Luxor – it also has great charm with a combination of carefree humour and geniality. Hough had the measure of all these qualities and was attentively supported by Edward Gardner and the LPO. Throughout Hough displayed attention to the smallest detail, often exquisite, as well as a devil-may-care-bravura when necessary, such as in the Finale’s fistfuls of notes. Following which Hough played ‘Clair de lune’ from Debussy’s Suite bergamasque with tenderness.
In an evening of delicious French music Gardner and the LPO started with Ibéria. After a slightly too cautious opening for Debussy’s evocation of Spanish street-life the LPO became more spirited and then sinuous. ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ was heady with a caressing quality and subtle interactions whilst the festive conclusion was vivid but not raucous.
Following the interval Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite with its beautiful and poignant evocation of childhood was more-patchy, not helped by some unfettered bursts of coughing. Gardner got the LPO to play with charm but there was a sense of sophisticated contrivance that didn’t quite convince. However, La mer was a reading remarkable for sustaining a tense balance between delicacy and impulse, a controlled, incisive account, refined too, with smooth transitions and subtle gradations of timbre. In an evening notable for impressive woodwind solos Sue Thomas’s flute was first amongst equals.