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A royal treat with Mendelssohn at the Proms

Stephen Hough plays music by Queen Victoria's favourite composer, on her gilded piano

15 August, 2019 — By Michael White

Stephen Hough. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke / www.stephenhough.com/

QUEEN Victoria has been allotted the default position Not Amused by history, but it isn’t true. Until her husband died and she went into mourning she was constantly amused. Especially by music.

She liked playing the piano. She loved Wagner and (above all) Mendel­ssohn. She sang along to Gilbert & Sullivan. And she naturally adored the competent if undis­tinguished songs and keyboard trifles written by Prince Albert. Much of which gets represented at the Albert Hall this Friday when the Prom will mark Victoria’s 200th birthday.

About Mendelssohn she positively gushed, writing in her diary of the thrill of being “ten steps away from Felix” at a concert. His ability to sit at the key­board and play, simultan­eously, the Austrian national anthem with one hand and Rule Britannia with the other reduced her to convulsions of delight. And his death at the early age of 38 left her almost as grief-stricken as she was on losing Albert.

“To feel,” she wrote, “when one is playing his beautiful music, that he is no more, seems incomprehensible.”

Her particular joy was to play Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words in four-hand keyboard arrangements. And the pièce de résistance at Friday’s Prom will be a spotlit appearance by one of her own pianos, specially brought over from Buckingham Palace.

An 1856 Erard encrusted with gilding and ornament, it’s the kind of thing that would have upstaged Liberace and (to be frank) is hideous. But at the same time, it’s spectacular. And refusing to be upstaged by it will be the master-pianist Stephen Hough, playing Mendelssohn’s 1st Piano Concerto with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Based in St John’s Wood but active all over the world, Hough ranks these days among the musical élite. And he’ll enjoy the campery of playing this gilded monster – which he’s already tried out, courtesy of our own dear Queen, and says that for all its bling it has a “human quality”, with a “reedy timbre which really does feel like something from another era”.

How well it will project in the vast space of the Albert Hall remains to be heard. But I daresay its visual impact will compensate. And on that subject, Hough tells me that he’ll be resisting all temptation to compete with the look of the thing.

“I’ll be soberly dressed,” he says. “A twinkle from my patent-leather shoes and Mendelssohn’s fizzy arpeggios is all I will allow myself.”

• Prom 40: Queen Victoria’s Anniversary, 7.30pm, £14-£62, Friday August 16, with live broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It’s also on BBC Four on Sunday 18th. www.bbc.co.uk/events/egbcd4


Other highlights at the Proms this coming week

William Walton’s magnificently over-the-top oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast is conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and sung not by one of the usual UK choral societies but by Orfeó Català, the impressive Catalan choral empire (for it is no less) based at the Palau de la Música in Barcelona.

If you’ve never seen the Palau, it’s an Art Nouveau treasure with an astonishing concert platform, all swirling ladies emerging from the plasterwork. But Orfeó Català, too, is something else: one of the great choral enterprises of mainland Europe. And bizarrely Anglophile.

When I was last in Barcelona to hear them perform, the director told me that his choir likes nothing more than singing John Rutter! And as Rutter to a large extent learned his craft from Walton, I’ve no doubt that the Orfeó will throw themselves into Belshazzar with a vengeance.

Expect to be blown sideways. 7.30pm Tuesday 20th (and televised on BBC Four, Friday August 23).

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Also stirring hearts, minds, possibly loins at the Albert Hall this week will be the charismatic young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (pictured), playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony under its headline-grabbing human dynamo of a conductor Mirga Grazintye-Tyla.

Mirga has been running the CBSO for three years now and still no one can spell her name (I had to check to get it right). But there’s no questioning her energy and dynamism. And the combination with Sheku in this iconic work forever associated with Jacqueline due Pré should be special. Catch it 7.30pm, Thursday 22nd, with a TV relay on BBC Four, Sunday 25th.

• Full details of all Proms at bbc.co.uk/proms

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