Hough and Morlot Dazzle in Rachmaninoff

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Ives, and Rachmaninoff: Stephen Hough (piano), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 14.6.2012 (BJ)

It seems scarcely credible—so vividly has the experience stayed in my memory—that six and a half years have passed since Barry Douglas and Gerard Schwarz fashioned, with the Seattle Symphony, the greatest performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto that I could remember hearing. Now, however, came an account of the work fit to stand beside that one, with Stephen Hough as soloist and Schwarz’s successor Ludovic Morlot demonstrating his ever-deepening rapport with his orchestra.

If Hough’s playing did not erase memories of Douglas’s performance, which offered virtuosity, elegance, and nobility in equal measure, it did vividly arouse them, which is compliment enough. The beginning was actually something of a surprise, the piano’s statement of the main theme being made in an unusually cool and extrovert tone and manner. But this proved to be, as it were, Hough keeping his powder dry to allow for all kinds of deepening, as, with extraordinary elasticity and almost insouciant brilliance, he drew a kaleidoscopic variety of sounds and of expression from the work as it unfolded.

Like most great pianists, Hough does not indulge in visual histrionics, and that made his performance all the more riveting. That fine choreographer and dancer Anton Dolin, in a radio interview I heard years ago, observed that one characteristic of the contemporary stage is that performers, in various genres of art, have largely lost the gift of standing still. Alexis Weissenberg, another outstanding interpreter of this concerto, had the gift in spades: his immobility at the keyboard was great theater in itself. And adapting a phrase that an uncle of mine used to make to his wife, concerning the notional relation between her and Marilyn Monroe, I could well have said to Hough on this occasion: “You remind me of Lang Lang—you’re so different.”

I cannot recall ever having heard a standing and cheering ovation that burst on the end of a performance with such instantaneous force as the one with which Hough, Morlot, and the orchestra were deservedly greeted. It came as an appropriate conclusion to an evening notable throughout for whiplash attack and consuming rhythmic zest.

Those qualities, at the start of the program, informed a performance of Bernstein’s Candide overture that combined tonal richness and sheer dash in rare equilibrium. If Charles Ives’s Second Symphony did not quite match the perfection of the other two works as we heard them, it was not the fault of the performers.

Morlot showed an admirable ability to launch Ives’s American rhythms forth, and the orchestra was in terrific form. But I think Ives was at his best in such works as the violin sonatas, the massive Concord Sonata for piano, and above all many of his hundred-plus songs. Next to those remarkable explosions of maverick inspiration, the symphonies sound just a shade contrived—almost, if such a word may be applied to a creator so irrepressibly individualistic, bordering on conventionality.

No. 2, for example, spends too much time in long stretches of orchestral polyphony that lack variety of pace and clear expressive character. Still, the piece has many wonderful moments. The finale, in particular, is illuminated by some soft, quintessentially American-sounding passages for the horns, which that section played beautifully under Mark Robbins’s leadership, and there are two substantial cello solos, in which this season’s new principal cellist, Efe Baltacigil, covered himself with glory.

The closing minutes of the symphony, moreover, build up a head of steam to which Morlot and his players gave full scope, culminating—convention left far behind—in Ives’s final thumbing of his nose at the public he never had in his lifetime, with a quite startling and disorienting dissonance on the very last chord. Even in works that don’t quite reach his highest level of accomplishment, the man was undeniably a genius.

Bernard Jacobson