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Hough in Baltimore

Our thanks to guest critic Robert R. Reilly for contributing this review and interview from Stephen Hough's performance in Baltimore.

available at Amazon
Pfitzner, Viola Concerto et al., Lawrence Power / M.Brabbins / BBC Scottish SO
available at Amazon
Rachmaninov, Piano Concertos, A.Litton / Dallas SO / Steven Hough
On the evening of January 28th the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra got off to a good start under young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, as it assayed Anatoly Liadov’s tone poem, Kikimora. The piece is full of lovely orchestral colors, crepuscular murmurings, and some spirited mischievousness. The BSO glowed; the principal oboist soared. Petrenko leaned into his conducting, expressing almost as much with his shoulders as his highly fluid hands.

The heart of the first half was the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, featuring Stephen Hough. In a pre-concert interview with the Baltimore Sun, Hough said that Tchaikovsky “certainly knew how to structure emotional content. And for all of the dangerously intense emotion, there is also that gentleness, the longing for childhood." That is a very interesting comment in light of the stormy emotional excesses for which Tchaikovsky is notorious – even in this early work. Nevertheless, Hough caught the full expressive range of the concerto, from the frequent outbursts of near hysteria to the occasional gentle sighs and child-like wonder and innocence in the second movement. He was as strong in the lyrical moments as in the pounding fortes. Well partnered with the orchestra, they achieved a magnificent climax in the third movement, just when you might have thought everything had been pretty much played out in the preceding triple fortes. It was a grand and exciting moment.

One might be tempted to call it a bravura performance for Hough, because it was one, and the audience immediately responded with a standing ovation. But that word might imply that Hough was putting on a show, using the music to demonstrate something about himself. He wasn’t. It was all for Tchaikovsky. This will hardly surprise those familiar with his artistic integrity.

Instead of staying for the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony, a work I greatly admire, I took the opportunity of dining with Hough, a very engaging person. I was particularly intrigued by how much of his time he spends composing, a side of Hough I did not know. Hough has written two Masses, a Nunc dimittis, and other choral works, and we can apparently hope for a recording. When I asked how it was that he, as an instrumentalist, seems to have concentrated on choral music, he gave the simple answer: because the works were commissioned. And the influence on his choral writing? The answer was Poulenc, which only makes me more curious.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, BSO Beautifully Powers Through a Weighty Russian Program (Washington Post, January 31)

Tim Smith, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Petrenko, Hough an incendiary matchup (Baltimore Sun, January 31)

Hough recently finished a trio for the extraordinary combination of piccolo, contrabassoon, and piano, titled “Was mit den Tränen geschieht” (What happens with Tears). This came about because he was approached by three members of the Berlin Philharmonic. Not only is the instrumental combination unusual, but so are the influences upon the trio from, according to Hough, Richard Strauss and Janáček. Another work in the offing is for the National Gallery, which is preparing a show of 15th to 16th century Spanish art works. For the musical background, Hough is composing a piece based on Victoria’s Requiem.

What is at the foundation of this fascinating eclecticism, I did not have time to discover. I did, however, learn of Hough’s high regard for the music of Alan Rawsthorne, Kenneth Leighton, Michael Tippet (before he went bonkers), and York Bowen, whose Viola Concerto he urged me to seek out.

If there was something worth missing the Shostakovich Eighth for, it was the acquaintance of this renaissance artist.

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