Stephen Hough Plays Dvořák

SingaporeSingapore Nielsen, Dvořák, Sibelius Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Okko Kamu (conductor), Stephen Hough (piano), Esplanade Concert Hall Singapore  10.4.2014 (RP)

Carl Nielsen, Helios Overture, Op. 17
Anton Dvořák, Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33
Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43

Stephen Hough quipped that he was offering two very popular piano pieces by Dvořàk as encores, Songs my mother taught me and Humoresque, after having just played the same composer’s decidedly less popular and seldom-performed piano concerto. The concerto never really caught on with pianists or audiences, although it has had its champions. Dvořàk himself noted,  “I see I am unable to write a concerto for a virtuoso, I must think of other things.” If there was ever a case to be made for the work, Hough, conductor Okko Kamu and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) rose to the challenge and then some. As for the audience, it applauded the concerto as heartily as the encores.

Dvořàk was only in his mid-thirties when he composed the concerto and still refining his personal style. The work harkens back to the classical era and Dvořàk’s early, more Germanic compositional style. These were the elements that Hough brought out in his stately, almost courtly playing. Hough’s superb technique and musicality were more than ample tradeoffs for flashy finger work. The concerto is marked by sequential passages throughout, and Hough and Kamu shaped them into dramatic, tension-packed climaxes, always propelling the music forward. Equally impressive was the coordination between piano and orchestra. Transitions were flawless, with Kamu and the SSO exceptionally sensitive to Hough’s phrasing and dynamics. The brass, particularly the horns, covered themselves in glory as they would throughout the concert. It was their evening to shine.

The concert opened with Neilsen’s popular Helios Overture. The SSO depicted the sun’s path over the sparkling emerald and cobalt Aegean Sea from sunrise to sunset with style and beauty. The horns played splendidly as the sun reached its apex, with the trumpets joining to herald the climax, aided by nimble playing from the violins. The setting sun, depicted so beautifully by principal hornist, Han Chang Chou, slid gently into the shimmering calm from which it had emerged, all guided by Kamu’s expert hand.

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 is the most nationalistic of his seven symphonies. Writing in Italy while in mourning for the death of his two-year-old daughter, Sibelius’ personal despair was assuaged by the sun, and this bold, thrilling work was the result. Kamu conducted a world-class performance of the symphony. The cello and contrabasses performed the long pizzicato sequence of the second movement flawlessly. The flutes followed by the solo oboe combined to create moments of tranquil beauty in the scherzo. The trumpets blazed in the finale, truly some of the most heroic, patriotic music that Sibelius ever composed. It was a glorious end to an evening of fine playing from the SSO.

Rick Perdian

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