Stephen Hough, piano: VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, Works by Wagner, Schumann and Bartok, Orpheum, November 14, 2015.

For many years now, Stephen Hough has used his formidable technique and intellect to take the cobwebs off of many mainline piano concertos, and bring them up fresh as paint.  This has been true in Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens and Liszt. Now it is time for the Schumann concerto.  Certainly, I might have guessed some features of Hough’s interpretation from the clean lines and insight of his solo Schumann recitals, both live and on CD, but I could not have gleaned the remarkable variety, integration or integrity that he managed to find in the work as a whole. The key to the pianist’s interpretation was to remove much of the padded romantic veneer often placed over this concerto, and to set out its raw, structural components in the light of day.  These foundations not only allowed for sharper dramatic emphasis and point but also opened up more room for the work’s important lyrical side, which was mined intensively, yet without traditional sentimental leanings.  Strikingly, the outcome remained fully ‘romantic’: Hough’s unerring judgement ensured that the work built with as much passion and excitement as one could ever want.  The orchestra contributed strongly and the inspiration seemingly flowed over to the concert’s concluding work, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, which received a very convincing reading as well.

I was very impressed with how Stephen Hough identified the basic pulse and feeling of the Schumann concerto.  The opening and closing movements obviously alternate between strong statement and gentle musing and repose, but the pianist managed to convey the idea that a consuming emotional volatility, sometimes impetuosity outright, is always present just beneath the surface.  This is probably an accurate representation of Schumann’s state of mind, the volatility intensifying as he got older. Thus, in Hough’s hands, even the quietest contemplative moments never have a completely settled feeling; they can hint at a state of full repose but in a moment there is a slight yearning present, and in another turn of the phrase, almost a bizarre perky enthusiasm, only to fall back quickly to regret or longing again.  Naturally, there is not as much of the vernal sweetness or warm flow apparent as traditionally – the phrasing invariably has subtle point and angularity – but this approach triumphantly succeeded in revealing a whole sub-plot of emotions that give both the development and the subsequent climaxes real meaning.  In turn, Hough has all the glistening bravura to take the latter home in a wave of passionate, almost unstoppable, motion.  His timing on when to really move the music forward is impeccable.

After the opening movement, I felt I had learned a great deal about the sheer complexity of this concerto -- just how many places it goes and how many little emotional leanings are actually concealed in smoother treatments.  After the brief Intermezzo, treated plainly as its title suggests, the concluding allegro simply carried forward the narrative that was already in place, and deepened the story.  There was the same intriguing mix of moment-to moment vulnerability and impetuosity, but somehow it had matured; there was greater insistence and determination. When the pianist excitingly took the work home to its final resting point – in a burst of truly ‘romantic’ flair – the sense of integration was astounding: the meaning of the whole work was completely crystalline, as if transpiring within a single movement.  

For all the countless classic performances of the Schumann concerto, from Lipatti through Kovacevich, I have really never heard one that integrates so cleanly the complex inward feelings of the work with its more demonstrative romantic élan.  I remarked to a symphony official after the concert that Hough probed the work in a way that only a ‘composer’ could: of course, Hough is a composer, just premiering his Piano Sonata No. 3 a few weeks ago.    All of this pianistic mastery must have impressed the musicians too: I have rarely seen Maestro Tovey and the orchestra so attentive and ready to participate, the dialogue between the winds and the piano so lovingly revealed, the orchestral climaxes so eager and full of discovery.

The Bartok Concerto for Orchestra had a comparable musicality and inspiration, although this was achieved more by a simple dedication to the score, exploring its variety and invention with freshness and never seizing upon the work’s ‘effects’ to turn it into a showpiece.  At the same time, I have seldom seen so much individuality or expression from the orchestral soloists and their respective sections.  Maestro Tovey’s well-chosen tempos gave them room to excel, and there was nothing in the five movements that did not flow naturally.  In the opening movement, I noted how well the upper strings sustained their very high pianissimo early on and just how refined and exact Christie Reside’s flute interjections were.  The brass rhythms toward the end were clean and dynamically poised.  The bassoons of Julia Lockhart, Gwen Sweaton and Sophie Dansereau showed just the right degree of play in the rustic scherzo, while the refinement and body of the string tone brought substantial depth and beauty to the Elegy.  The ‘jokes’ of the following Intermezzo were not exaggerated, but seemed an inevitable part of the musical development, while the last movement’s skittering rhythmic drive was managed with striking virtuosity, the Hungarian accents in the strings both idiomatic and telling. 

There are many other soloists (and principals) I could mention, but I must also note the wonderful plaintiff tones of Beth Orson’s cor anglais in the brief Wagner extract from Tristan that formally opened the concert.  Faure’s Pavane was played right at the start, with a moment of silence, to mourn the tragic deaths in Paris last week.  For all these recent events have been unsettling, I can safely say that there hasn’t been a Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concert finer than this for a considerable time.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015