BBC SSO / Coelho

City Halls, Glasgow

Last-minute changes of conductor have become a regular occurrence these days, so Thursday’s replacement of the indisposed Tabita Berglund by Portuguese conductor Nuno Coelho registered as little more than a minor, necessary alteration. Coelho, a diminutive figure with a massive presence, made only one change to the programme – Dvorak’s Othello Overture for the advertised opener, Johan Svendsen’s Zorahayda. Otherwise, the advertised works by Rachmaninov and Sibelius remained in place.

Few will have regretted either substitution, for not only did Coelho demonstrate an instant rapport with the orchestra, but this particular Dvorak overture – the last of three he composed in the 1890s – provided the perfect vehicle. 

It’s a work crammed with subtleties of colour and emotional extremes, in this instance breathtaking from start to finish. Coelho’s insistence on a succulent warmth from the strings made for a captivating opening, a gorgeous hymn-like scene-setter beyond which the musical characterisations raged between the wistful and tender to forthright and menacing. 

It certainly set the bar high for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 and its chief protagonist, the now-knighted pianist Sir Stephen Hough. For two-thirds of the way it certainly didn’t disappoint. Hough played steady composure against surprise in the opening movement, a thoroughly comforting vision heightened by frequent pressing gestures that suddenly, like rocket boosts, upped the energy and fired the momentum. The slow movement was sublime, Coelho by then perfectly attuned to the pianist’s persuasive idiosyncrasies and moulding an alert and endearing response from the SSO.  

Things didn’t go so well in the finale, where Hough’s previous reliability gave way to moments of near panic as he seemed to wrestle with accuracy and tempo. Ever the professional, he pulled things together, with some mesmerising pianissimos that challenged the orchestra to follow suit, flashes of revelation where melodies and often underplayed countermelodies interacted mischievously, and a glorious finish that was, understandably, as defiant as it was resolute.

Coelho ended the programme with a wonderfully rugged, at times vividly rustic, performance of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, each of its four constituent tone poems ravishingly sculpted, from the opulent bravado of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens to the triumphant sunburst of Lemminkäinen’s Return. Yet again the SSO responded with rhythmic brilliance and expressive warmth to Coelho’s ever-meaningful precision. And once again, the SSO found itself totally inspired by a conductor it never expected in the first place.

Ken Walton 

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds