Actual Storm Accompanies Stormy Liszt

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Ravel, Beethoven, Liszt, Sibelius: Stephen Hough (piano), John Storgårds (conductor), Cleveland Orchestra;Brett Mitchell (conductor), Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra, Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 26.7.2014 (MSJ)

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll [Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra/Mitchell]
Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin [KBCO/Mitchell]
Beethoven: Overture to Fidelio [Cleveland Orchestra/Storgårds]
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major [Hough/CO/Storgårds]
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major [CO and KBCO/Storgårds]


It was a dark and stormy night at Saturday’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Blossom Music Center, as guest soloist Stephen Hough can surely testify. Just a few minutes into Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Hough was playing a soft trill when the biggest, meanest, loudest bolt of lightning I’ve ever heard hit a tree just outside the outdoor amphitheater’s pavilion. No one was hurt, but the packed audience and the entire orchestra visibly jumped in automatic response to the blinding flash and explosive boom. But one person did not move: Stephen Hough, who held out the soft trill on the piano as the thunder echoed off the surrounding hillsides and dissipated. As the rumble trailed off, and the trill again became audible, the audience chuckled and burst into a spontaneous round of applause for the British pianist, who shrugged his shoulders and gestured with his free hand as if to say “what else can you do at a moment like this?” After the applause died down, he continued on, immediately drawing the focus back to the music.

And what a performance it was! I’ll be the first to confess that the Liszt concerto does not rank high on my list of favorites, but it would rank much higher if every time I heard it, it were played by Stephen Hough. Where too many pianists try to tame Liszt’s theatrics by toning down the flashy aspects, Hough rightly realizes that without the flash, there wouldn’t be a reason for the piece to exist. He relished the work’s bravura without ever gratuitously grandstanding, unleashing a formidably brilliant technique. Perhaps by coming to peace with the work’s pyrotechnics, Hough was conversely able to dig deeper in the slow movement, making it the heart of the concerto. He also shrewdly paced the finale, saving an extra jolt of energy for the coda. Bravura, digging deep, brilliance, and shrewd pacing might sound like mutually-exclusive descriptors, but that’s the secret of a great artist at work. Hough was backed up by lively support from John Storgårds and the orchestra. The audience again jumped out of their chairs at the end of the concerto, this time cheering in a standing ovation, which resulted in an encore by the pianist.

Energy was certainly the theme to the evening, in many different ways. The main concert started off with Finnish conductor John Storgårds leading the orchestra in a vigorous, punchy performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, but that had been preceded by a performance by the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra, a college student ensemble of the Kent/Blossom Music Festival, a five-week summer institute for professional music training operated by Kent State University in cooperation with the Cleveland Orchestra and Blossom Music Center. The performance of the student orchestra was to have been Cleveland Orchestra assistant conductor Brett Mitchell’s Blossom debut, but last weekend he stepped in for ailing guest conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and gave a magnificent performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Here, he started off the KBCO with a tender yet flowing performance of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which showed off the ensemble’s faultless intonation and attractive tone. The students shifted gears effortlessly from warmth to gleaming coolness with an outstanding performance of Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Mitchell paced the opening prelude slower than has become customary over the years, rightly putting the work in its original context, as each movement was dedicated by Ravel to a friend he lost during World War One. Too often skimmed for its surface brilliance, the work has hidden depths, and Mitchell made sure that the players reflected them without undermining its Gallic detached poise. The only drawback, and it was minor, was that the final “Rigaudon” was just a shade faster than ideal for the reverberant acoustics of the Blossom pavilion, at least back where I was sitting.

The thunder and lightning continued to provide a dramatic backdrop throughout the evening, quite effectively so for the big closer, an epic reading of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, featuring the combined talents of both orchestras. Storgårds led with demonstrative flair, achieving considerable drama and grandeur, though appearing to work hard, since the professional Cleveland ensemble often prefers a patrician calm. Storgårds, now fifty, has been rising in international profile after establishing himself regionally and in Europe. He is the latest of a series of conducting students of Jorma Panula to rise to prominence. Like his fellow Panula-trained students, who include Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vänskä, Mikko Franck, Susanna Mälkki, Sakari Oramo, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Storgårds gets results, but he seems to take a more personal approach than some of the others, massaging tempos in an ebb-and-flow of energy entirely appropriate to Sibelius’ mythic storytelling.

The first movement had a basically quick pulse, in the authentic Finnish manner, but with many varied sub-tempos, all working together to build to a bracing peak. The slow movement was flowingly paced, though some of the quieter details were lost to the pouring rain. Storgårds built the climaxes with a sure hand, though the last degree of abandon remained elusive in the climactic outbursts near the end of the movement. The scherzo took off at a daringly fast tempo. It was exciting, though a little fuzzy in the pavilion’s acoustic. In addition to a beautiful oboe solo, the strings displayed an almost tangible depth of sound when they took over the repeated-note theme. Best of all was the finale, where Storgårds successfully rallied the players to a forceful, ecstatic close.

Whether by design or default, Storgårds is a vigorously physical conductor, though his movements didn’t seem calculated to impress the audience, as he often remained hunched over his score, communicating smaller details with minute gestures. And though I didn’t sense a great spark between conductor and orchestra, a fine performance was achieved regardless.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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