Monday, 13 July 2009

SSO Concert: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto Extravaganza with Stephen Hough / Review

Piano Concerto Extravaganza
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Fridays (3 & 10 July 2009)

An edited version of this review was published by The Straits Times on 13 July 2009.

The great Russian composer Tchaikovsky wrote four piano concertos, but it has always been the First Concerto (Op.23) that is over-performed and loved by audiences the world over. Its successors have suffered in comparison; their major key modes missing out on the Slavic pathos so abundant in the B flat minor. And it also takes a rare and superlative pianist to pull them off convincingly, if given the chance.

Briton Stephen Hough (left) who performs all the concertos at the BBC Proms this year gave Singaporeans a sneak preview of those “Cinderella” concertos. The Second Concerto in G major (Op.44) risks sounding overblown and bloated, but Hough’s attack in the resolute opening chords allayed those fears, yet displaying much sensitivity in the more reflective passages. The 1st movement cadenza, one that tops its predecessor in bluster and sheer notes, came through with great panache, its thrilling scales-laden lead-up to the orchestral tutti particularly gripping.

The most sublime moments were shared by Hough, violinist Alexander Souptel and cellist Roberto Trainini in the slow movement, which was performed without cuts. In this mini “triple concerto”, Tchaikovsky’s melodic writing seemed unsurpassed. While the finale’s romp featured ironically one of his most vulgar themes, Hough’s scintillating runs octaves and runs saved the day.

The Concert Fantasy (Op.56), also in G major, is an arguably better work, and unique in the concerto repertory. The orchestra performs for just a few minutes at the beginning and end of the 1st movement, in between a humongous cadenza that overshadows all else. Hough had much resource to spare, and found subtlety amid the barnstorming. One particularly tricky passage combining right hand filigree with left hand melody defined his brand of pianism – the virtuoso as poet. Contrastes, the 2nd movement, juxtaposed the Slavic dumka (a lament) with a Cossack dance to brilliant effect, with cellist Trainini’s (left) duet with Hough a total delight.

The Third Concerto in E flat major (Op.75), in a single movement and receiving its Singapore premiere, was the weakest of the lot. It seemed destined that even Hough’s dedicated advocacy – which included yet another long cadenza and lots more bravura – would not save it from its dense orchestration and pretty much deserved obscurity. Do not expect to hear it again from the SSO anytime soon.

Hough’s lovely encores on two evenings were quite something else. His own transcription of Deng Yu Hsien’s Pining for the Spring Breeze (Wan Chun Feng, or Ban Choon Hong in Hokkien) raised an audible heave of recognition from the audience, and Grieg’s Notturno in C major (from Lyric Pieces) provided an oasis of solace from the evening’s torrent of decibels.

The balance of both concerts showcased more Russian music. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade is the classic SSO warhorse and calling card, one where concertmaster Souptel’s violin sang unfettered while the orchestra painted vivid scenes of oriental fantasy under Israeli conductor Yoel Levi’s baton. The Young Pole Krzysztof Urbanski (left) impressed with his fine control and leadership in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No.1.

If there were two moments that revealed the coming of age of the 30-year-old orchestra, it was in the fine string tremolos and rapt pianissimos achieved at the beginning of the Finale in the Stravinsky, and the poignant and seamless Death of ├ůse (Grieg). Loud and fast have become so “yesterday”.

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