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A Festival Of Diversity

Stephen Hough, piano  and Bramwell Tovey, conductor

Works by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Liszt and Good, Orpheum, November 6, 2010 


     This concert had it all: a ceremony honoring music in BC’s schools, an opening ‘Prelude’ by Scott Good, the VSO’s composer in residence, performances of two of the least popular works of the world’s greatest composers, and the always-distinguished Stephen Hough performing not one but two piano concertos.

     The immense popularity of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 (‘Organ’) can be taken for granted.  Just flip the numbers however and we have works that are sufficiently unpopular that, even now, it may be difficult to find recordings of them.  The Piano Concerto No. 3 is essentially Tchaikovsky’s last work; he lived long enough to complete only the first movement.  While possessing some of the composer’s familiar flourish and nationalistic fervor, Stephen Hough’s steely, exact playing brought out a more ‘modern’, sleek and agile feel to some of the piano writing, as with Prokofiev later on.  I found this intriguing; how might Tchaikovsky have written if he had lived longer?  However, as the work finished with one of the most bulky and heavyweight cadenzas ever written, one is forced to conclude that the concerto was not a fully-settled product of the composer’s last years.  But certainly fun to hear: it has likely never been performed in Vancouver before.

     In contrast, Saint-Saens Symphony No. 1 (1853) is a very youthful work, written when only 18.  It shows evident poise and craft, and a nice sense of melodic invention.  The symphony does not attempt too much; there is ‘serenade’ quality to much of it.  But the influence of earlier masters is everywhere. In the first movement, it is Schumann, the second, Mendelssohn, the third, Berlioz, and Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture suddenly arrives in the finale.  A pleasant ‘fusion’ nonetheless!

     The youthful tradition is also represented in Scott Good’s Prelude for Orchestra, a revised version of his first commissioned piece, premiered in 1998 when the composer was 26.  This is effective writing, starting with the ominous feeling of ‘Mars’ in Holst’s The Planets, and developed with the seriousness found in, say, William Schuman, the American composer.

     Moving from obscurity, the highlight of the night was Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed with evident delight by both pianist and conductor Bramwell Tovey.  The work is a ‘showpiece’ of course, and Stephen Hough can play all the big virtuoso passages with a clarity and weight to match just about anyone.  However, what was special here was the way the pianist often scaled down his tone and used imaginative phrasing to create a world of glimmering pointillist refinement in contrast. This certainly made the quieter middle movements a deeper and more inward experience than usual, conjuring up some of the sentient glow found in Liszt’s greatest works for solo piano; for example, in the Annees de Pelerinage.

     I think that the full house at the Orpheum really enjoyed the imagination of this programming and the commitment of the performers.  Let’s hope we will hear other carefully-packaged slices of the unfamiliar in the future.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011