Pianist Hough serves up thrilling fireworks in rarely heard Tchaikovsky concerto

Thu Dec 09, 2010 at 12:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stephen Hough performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Wednesday night with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Lord Patrick Douglas-Hamilton

Quick, what is the finest piano concerto by a popular composer, which remains mostly unknown and rarely performed today?

You win if you guessed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2. This Cinderella work, prized by admirers on recordings but a virtual stranger to the concert hall received an electrifying, take-no-prisoners performance by soloist Stephen Hough with Xian Zhang leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night.

The reason for the neglect of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto–especially compared to its iconic and inescapable predecessor–is twofold. First, it contains some of the most tortuously difficult piano writing of any Romantic concerto warhorse, which remains daunting even today.

Secondly, the score was published after Tchaikovsky’s death in a version he disapproved of by Alexander Siloti. A student of Taneyev, Siloti made revisions that greatly reduced the complexities that make the concerto such a bravura event. Worse, he took a meat-axe to the unique, expansive slow movement, which offers one of Tchaikovsky’s most gorgeous melodies and turns into a triple concerto, with the principal violin and cello sharing the spotlight with the piano soloist.

Stephen Hough is one of the handful of keyboard artists with the technical arsenal to handle this comically difficult music, and Wednesday night he performed every note of the original version in all its dizzying glory.

The British pianist consciously strives to bring an unbridled spontaneity to his playing, as evident in his extraordinary recordings of Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saens concertos.

That certainly proved the case Wednesday, with Hough’s fire and improvisatory sense of abandon producing one of the most thrilling feats of pianistic derring-do heard downtown in recent years. Even in the most complex solo solo passages, Hough didn’t drop a single note, attacking the fusillade of notes, octaves, hand-crossing and double glissandos with iron-fingered articulation and the kind of unapologetic keyboard bravura rarely encountered today.

Yet the pianist also brought a poetic sensibility to the lyrical passages as in the second theme of the opening movement and the long-breathed melody of the Andante (here presented in Hough’s slightly modified transcription, which gives the piano more prominence in the spotlight with the violin and cello).  Robert Chen and John Sharp were refined and sympathetic partners with Hough in this lovely music, though Sharp’s cello could have been more strongly projected Wednesday.

The finale with its pinball-shot main theme and piling up of complexities was edge-of-the-seat thrilling with Hough living dangerously by accelerating the already-fast tempo at the coda and somehow managing to pull it off magnificently. Hough will be back in January to complete this traversal of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertante music with Mark Elder, but this program is the concert to catch.

Zhang provided tight accompaniment for Hough in the rapid back-and-forth between soloist and orchestra, but otherwise her direction proved undistinguished. Tuttis were often raw and blunt-edged with wind lines inaudible and a general lack of tonal refinement to the orchestral sound.

Wednesday’s abbreviated Afterwork Masterworks program led off with Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4, Mozartiana.

Like the Second Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s four orchestral suites are rarely performed. That’s unfortunate because these works offer a great deal of the composer’s inimitable melodic charm and distinctive flair for scoring and orchestral coloring, cast in the vein of his ballet music.

Mozartiana reflects Tchaikovsky’s lifelong worship of Mozart (“He is my Christ,” wrote the Russian composer), and Tchaikovsky here builds a four-movement suite with thematic material mined mostly from some of Mozart’s lesser-known works.

Conductors like Neeme Jarvi have shown there are ample riches and allure in this suite, but the literal, aggressive performance led by Zhang Wednesday likely did little to make any converts.

Xian Zhang

Music director of the Giuseppe Verdi Orchetra of Milan and a former associate conductor at the New York Philharmonic, Zhang made an admirable Grant Park debut this summer, but she proved completely out of synch with the suite’s capricious essence. Charm was in short supply with the Chinese conductor’s emphatic, bludgeoning style ill-suited to this music.

Even in the lovely third movement, based on a Liszt organ retooling of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, Zhang tended to over-conduct, self-consciously moulding the string lines instead of just letting the orchestra play. (These musicians don’t require a road map highlighted in bright yellow marker to play Tchaikovsky.)

Balances were unkempt with unblended winds, and the close of the slow movement sounded like an impromptu harp concerto. Robert Chen’s grace and refined delicacy in the violin solos of the Theme and Variations finale pointed up the lack of these qualities elsewhere under Zhang’s fussy direction.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday with the alternating addition of Tchaikovsky’s Concert Fantasy or Piano Concerto No. 3. Stephen Hough will be back next month to complete this Tchaikovsky cycle with the Piano Concerto No. 1 with Sir Mark Elder. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Also check out Stephen Hough’s amusing and wide-ranging observations at his Daily Telegraph blog.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Pianist Hough serves up thrilling fireworks in rarely heard Tchaikovsky concerto”

  1. Posted Dec 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm by klassikul ferii dust

    The concert last night was one of the worst ive been to in years….Mr Hough banged scraped punched and mercilessly beat his piano down to a juicy pulp. Surely it must be illegal to treal pianos in this fashion? Not a single moment of lyrical pretty playing thru the entire evening. His tone is painfully agressive and severe. He lacks every hint of poetic sensbilities. A most dissapointing evening at the symphony.

    The music is admittedly loud and over wrought, but many fine pianists have managed to bring out the singing qualities, despite Tchaikovsky’s lack of pianist finesse. And just to add a little more bile to the icing he managed to mutilate a Chopin nocturne at the end. The famous one in e flat, the one that any 10 year old in China can play with more color and poetry. In keeping with the rest of the evening it was loud and fast….and nothing else.

    I will say nothing about the sloppy, out of tune, out of sink, rythemless, under preparede playing of the orchestra. Do the really consider themselves to be one the worlds great orchestra?

    Am I the only one who feels this way?

    responses invited

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