Stephen Hough concert review Sydney Symphony May 2023


  4 ½ stars

It was another busy night at the Sydney Opera House last night. The Concert Hall boasted a full house including 600 secondary school students attending to see Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing with one of the world’s best known living pianists, Sir Stephen Hough (pronounced Huff). He is here in Australia visiting from the UK to perform a number of concerts in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. With many world class accolades and over 60 albums to his name, Hough was knighted last year in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to music. His performances booked for the rest of the year will fly him to Asia, Europe, UK, North and South America.

This was a quick program for the evening of around one hour, suitable for short attention spans. The first half featured Hough performing with the SSO the infamous “Rach 2” or Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 Opus 18, a favourite for pianists and audiences all around the world. The second half was the orchestra performing a piece by Rachmaninov’s contemporary, Respighi, the very entertaining “Pines of Rome”.

Guest British conductor John Wilson lead the orchestra for the evening. His work has him travelling internationally but, at home, his name is most famously connected to the BBC Proms and relaunching the Sinfonia of London back in 2018. His work has established him as highly distinguished among his peers and he is currently the Henry Wood Chair of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. Wilson has made many recordings with the Sinfonia of London receiving a BBC Music Magazine award for their recording of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy just a couple of years ago so Pines of Rome is a piece he knows well. (See below for details on the full Roman Trilogy being performed tonight.)

The introduction and welcome for the evening is usually given by a different orchestra member each concert, this time by Percussionist Timothy Constable. Very easy, natural and articulate in front of the microphone, Constable spoke of his own personal connection to each of the two program items and did a great job of warming up the crowd.

Hough and Wilson arrived on stage to keen applause, then launched straight in to the concerto. It begins with a series of chords growing ever more tense and serious until the strings join in with the melody while the piano rolls along like thunder underneath. Hough brought great intensity to his playing, clear, confident and courageous in his interpretation. Even the quiet parts were bold and easily heard above the orchestra. The tension continued into the usually dreamy second movement, which was unexpected, and only slowed to allow more space to float between the notes once the repeat came around.

An astounding talent, Hough’s virtuosity made the playing feel easy, even in the most technically challenging phrases. There were no extreme variations nor embellishments in change of tempo or expression. He simply let the music speak for itself.

Wilson was neat and efficient with his cues and movements making it very easy to keep track of the baton. Interpretation was quite explicit. In rehearsal, he must have been very clear on what he wanted and the orchestra obliged him down to the finest detail. We are truly blessed to have such a wonderful orchestra resident in our city and must never take them for granted. A few concerts with other orchestras are usually the best way to see how superb Sydney Symphony really are.

The crowd were very pleased with the concerto offering great applause at the close encouraging several curtain calls and a generous encore.

After a quick reset, rather than a full interval, the piano was removed and Wilson returned to the stage for Respighi’s Pines of Rome. This piece was beautifully matched to the Rach 2 and held the house attention through to the very end. It’s not often performed here in Sydney and would be delightful to hear again. Set as a cycle of four tone poems set around scenes where you would find Pine trees in Rome: children playing around the Villa Borghese gardens, a mournful uttering from deep within the Catacomb, a peaceful setting of nighttime on Janiculum hill which features, as part of the score, a recording of the song of a nightingale and then closing with a crazy, exciting view of Roman Empire soldiers stomping along the Appian Way featuring a big brass section, chimes, harp, celeste, gong and really big cymbals!

It was fun to watch the school students in the choir seats suddenly discover there was a solo trumpet playing outside their exit door and then the looks on their faces when the massive, crashing finale found them literally in the middle of the orchestra with a lineup of brass along the back row of their seating section (some grinning, some with jaws dropped). It was enough to make your hair stand on end. Each movement so vivid in expressing its visual scene.

The audience erupted after this work, clearly loving it. When a program is this fun, there really is no need for “filler” items in the program. Everyone left deeply satisfied they had flown with Rachmaninov, laughed at little tornados of children coming and going in the gardens and been stunned by the military might of ancient Caesars.

Another winner, Sydney Symphony! Keep up the good work.

Continuing this 2023 series, grab your tickets now

Friday 12 May: Wilson conducting the full Roman Trilogy with the SSO.

Saturday 13 May: Stephen Hough performing Rach 2 in a matinee.

Monday 15 May: Stephen Hough at City Recital hall performing the Great Romantics (almost sold out)

Wednesday 17 May to Saturday 20 May: Stephen Hough performing Rach 1 with the SSO.


Related Links

More about pianist Stephen Hough:

More about conductor John Wilson:

On a visit to Melbourne Australia, Princess Diana plays a piece of Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no 2 for the press.


  1. Hi,

    I was there at the concert too. By any chance, do you know the name of the encore song? My friends and I are really keen to listen to it again.


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