Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Royal Albert Hall, London

Performances, broadcasts and recordings of Mahler’s First Symphony are ubiquitous, to its detriment, so a performance quite unlike the many previously heard was needed, however eccentric, if revealing of how far this music can be taken (convincingly) so as to make it ‘new’ and rejuvinated. An unreasonable demand to place on Mark Wigglesworth – not that he knew – and he and the BBC Philharmonic gave a perfectly decent reading – a broad picturesque first movement (exposition repeated) with an exhilarating coda; a rustic Scherzo & languorous Trio; a less than macabre third movement (rightly with solo bass rather than section tutti) & beatific middle section; and a rather underplayed Finale when the music is tempestuous yet with wonderful space and intimacy afforded the slower sections; the triumphant conclusion was somewhat rushed. Just another Mahler One.

Grace-Evangeline Mason’s Ablaze the Moon (BBC commission: world premiere) is atmospheric and expressive, slightly Sibelian in places, its scenic properties enticing, the music pointing us skywards in tumultuous fashion and then with mysterious suggestiveness as to what celestial bodies might be found beyond the moon. Impressive in her use of the orchestra and as music, yet, after just six minutes Ablaze the Moon simply stops, frustratingly.

Following which, as centrepiece, Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto (revised version), Stephen Hough in sparkling and vividly communicative form for a powerful, passionate, nimble, flexible and dynamic account, with a slow movement at once romantic and as if Hough was extemporising, the BBC Phil and Wigglesworth fully involved. Hough’s encore was a sweet salon treat, Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F, shaped deliciously and with affection.