Christophe Rousset regards his harpsichord as a time-machine, and his travels have yielded impressive fruit: he’s brought to light scores of works by French and Italian Baroque composers which had been overshadowed by Handel and Vivaldi.
He also has a nicely popular touch: he was the musical brains behind Gerard Corbiau’s 1994 film ‘Farinelli’, which marked the beginning of the castrato/counter-tenor craze.
For their Chamber Prom at the Cadogan Hall, Rousset and his Talens[sic] Lyriques ensemble stayed on kosher ground, presenting some lovely works by French composers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. None of the pieces they performed by Lully, Couperin, Montclair, and Rameau could match the God-given genius of Henry Purcell, but the Couperin suite from ‘Les nations’ had charm, the Montclair cantata was fierily sung by soprano Eugenie Warnier, and the Rameau concerto made a brilliant showcase for Rousset’s harpsichord skills.
Meanwhile the evening prom was a knockout. Under Gianandrea Noseda’s baton, the BBC Philharmonic delivered Beethoven’s fourth symphony with rare refinement: much of this delicately-poised work was played pianissimo, with its contours fastidiously delineated. But the reason why the hall was packed came afterwards, in the form of Saint-Saens’s ‘Egyptian’ piano concerto, with Stephen Hough as soloist. The last time this work had been played in a Prom was in 1918, which meant that it was refreshingly virgin territory. It began with a gentle, almost Rachmaninovian chorale, but as it developed one heard echoes of Chopin, then stronger ones of Tchaikovsky, before the piece settled into Saint-Saens’s characteristically Gallic mode.
Joyfully cantering up and down the keyboard, Hough was comfortably in control of the virtuosity the first movement demanded, but the second movement – tentative, exploratory, and wonderfully eloquent – made one wonder why this work had so long been ignored. Saint-Saens had the misfortune to be too prolific, to live too long, and to make eternal enemies by denigrating Debussy, but it’s time he had his revival. And in that, this work – with Hough as its velvet-pawed advocate – should loom large.
After Hough’s encore – his own graceful arrangement of a song by Massenet - the evening closed with Liszt’s ‘Dante Symphony’, a chiaroscuro epic crowned with a chorus in the amphitheatre and the organ going full blast. Splendid.