Piano concertos feast

Classical-trained musician and stand-up comedian Rainer Hersch
Classical-trained musician and stand-up comedian Rainer Hersch

TCHAIKOVSKY’S First Piano Concerto is appropriately the first of three piano concertos to be heard at successive concerts as the Sheffield International Concert Season stirs back into life at the City Hall this Friday after the winter holiday break.

It goes without saying that the Tchaikovsky concerto is far better known than those on February 9 – Britten’s opus – and February 22 – Shostakovich’s No 2.

Infinitely better known. Who has never heard the famous opening?

The soloist, Evgenia Rubinova, may not be quite as well known nowadays as the two who take to the City Hall’s Steinway grand for the Britten (Steven Osborne) and Shostakovich (Mikhail Rudy), although she something in common with the latter. They were both born in Tashkent.

Rubinova shot to fame as the silver medal winner at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2003 when she gave a sensational performance of the Tchaikovsky which she plays with The Hallé this Friday.

It became something of a calling card for her for a while after, including with The Hallé and Mark Elder, although she worked her way through umpteen Mozart concerti, the last three by Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, etc.

Okay, all four by Rachmaninov, plus the ‘Paganini Rhapsody’, and other Russian concertos are in there too but, in more recent times, Rubinova appears to have been concentrating (not exclusively) on an extensive solo repertoire in recital work and chamber music.

The concert’s other main work is Brahms’ Rhine-inspired Third Symphony and the temptation to quote the immortal reference to it in the gloriously anarchic Fawlty Towers cannot be resisted.

“Turn off that racket,” insists Sybil Fawlty (Prunella Scales) to manic husband Basil (John Cleese) who is listening to the radio. “Racket? This is Brahms!” he exclaims, adding: “Brahms’ third racket!”

Sorry, Brahms fans. The reminder of it came watching a re-run of the 12 episodes of the 1970s sitcom as a cheer-me-up during a recent bout of flu.

Hardly a ‘racket’, it is the most popular of the four popular Brahms symphonies, most forcibly making its mark when the work’s heroic and lyrical elements are balanced without over-emphasising either.

Distinguished Finnish maestro Okko Kamu returns to conduct the Hallé and the concert begins in the watery realms of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, or Fingal’s Cave if you prefer. And, next Wednesday, easily the most familiar stretch of water in the music, the (not so) Blue Danube, waltzes into the City Hall.

Johann Strauss watchers will know immediately this must mean Raymond Gubbay’s touring Viennese extravaganza at this time of year is back in town, but under a new name, One Night in Vienna – title ‘borrowed’ from Strauss’s rarely-heard operetta in this country One Night in Venice, perhaps?

Another change is more fundamental, the disappearance of the Strauss-style, violin-playing director of the orchestra to be replaced by trained classical musician and stand-up comedian Rainer Hersch, a sort of latter-day British Victor Borge who has quite a wide international reputation, as conductor and host.

Fear not, nothing else appears to have changed, the band is still the Johann Strauss Orchestra and the Johann Strauss Dancers will still be strutting their stuff, although some unspecified Tchaikovsky is mentioned among pieces we have been able discover as being on offer.

You know them: Voices of Spring, Thunder and Lightning, Radetzsky March, Adele’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus among items from this year’s soprano soloist, Charlotte Ellett. The Blue Danube, of course, and among rarities, two early-ish Strauss waltzes, Liebes-Lieder (Songs of Love) and Lava-Ströme (Streams of Lava), penned to reflect volcanic activity at Mount Vesuvius in 1850.