Stephen Hough Champions Dvořák; Andris Nelsons Memorable in Rachmaninov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Rachmaninov. Stephen Hough (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 18.3.2015 (JQ)

Dvořák – Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33 (B 63)
Rachmaninov – Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op, 27


This concert, pairing a less well-known work by one great composer and a masterpiece by a second great composer, looked a tantalising prospect on paper. The reality more than lived up to expectations. 

Dvořák wrote his Piano Concerto in the space of two months during 1876, though after the first performance he revised it quite heavily – the solo part in particular – before publication in 1883. The concerto thus comes between the Fifth Symphony (1875) and the Sixth Symphony (1880). It has never attained the popularity of the A minor Violin Concerto (1879-80), still less the fame of the great B minor Cello Concerto (1894-5). Perhaps this is due, in part at least, to the fact that the solo part is relatively restrained in the opportunities for virtuoso display that it offers to the soloist. As Jan Smaczny pointed out in his programme note, a number of pianists have sought to “improve” Dvořák’s writing for the solo instrument. Stephen Hough is far too fastidious an artist to indulge in anything like this and he gave us the composer’s authentic version. The performance was recorded live for a future release on the Hyperion label; I believe the coupling will be the Schumann concerto. 

I must confess that I don’t know the concerto all that well – performances are not frequent – but it seemed to me that Hough and Nelsons made the best possible case for it. Both displayed full engagement simply through their body language – Nelsons was his usual expressive self. Hough’s playing was expertly nuanced and full of character while Nelsons and his orchestra gave him consistently marvellous support. The first movement, which accounts for about half of the entire piece, is full of Dvořákian stylistic fingerprints and in the introduction Nelsons set out the stall for this performance, shaping the music with freshness and vitality; later, several of the tutti passages were suitably red-blooded. The piano part is almost modest in tone – certainly by comparison with many other nineteenth century concertos – but Hough played it most persuasively. The movement as a whole was attractive and, in this performance, winning. 

Much of the Andante sostenuto second movement is gently lyrical. It was a great shame that the opening minutes were marred by quite an amount of intrusive coughing. There was a note in the programme that the performance was being recorded and the microphones were something of a giveaway. Even so the members of what my colleague Mark Berry has so rightly called the Bronchial Terrorists made their presence felt without, it seemed, making any effort to stifle the coughs. It is to be hoped that Hyperion will be able to get a less interrupted take of these pages either at the second performance of this concert or from rehearsals. The music itself was wonderfully delivered. Hough’s touch was delightful while the CBSO partnered him beautifully. Some lyrical asides apart, the finale is mainly high spirited in character. It’s here that the Czech folk element seemed most prominent to me. The performance was exciting and often exuberant; Hough and Nelsons were fully engaged and gave every indication of enjoying the music. 

The concerto may not be universally regarded as Dvořák at his best but the Symphony Hall audience gave the work and the performers an extremely warm reception. Stephen Hough sent us on our way to the interval with an utterly charming Dvořák encore. Watch out for the CD when it appears. 

After the interval we heard Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. The CBSO last played it almost a year ago to the day under the Russian conductor, Mikhail Tatarnikov. I thought that was a pretty good performance (review) but tonight’s performance was in a completely different league. I suppose it helped that Nelsons and the orchestra are so familiar with each other and enjoy such a strong rapport. But that was only part of the story. Tatarnikov’s reading was impressive in its way but, as I recall it, his performance lacked the romantic sweep and ardent involvement that Nelsons brought to the score. Nelsons was at his most balletic during this performance and he motivated the orchestra through every bar. Not that the CBSO seemed to need much motivation; this is a gloriously ripe symphony and the players gave every indication of being ‘up for it’, responding to their soon-to-depart chief with playing of great commitment and no little passion. 

Nelsons gave the score complete, eschewing the egregious cuts that some conductors have inflicted on the work. I say “complete” but there was one omission: the exposition repeat was not taken in the first movement. Nelsons is far from alone in not revisiting the exposition in what is a long movement in any case; but I prefer to hear the repeat and would have loved to experience the music a second time on this occasion. The substantial, yearning introduction was splendidly unfolded. From the very first phrases, each one moulded expansively, it seemed clear that we were in for a fine performance and so it proved.  Nelsons’ beat is always expressive and here it served the music exceptionally well. The main Allegro moderato had irresistible sweep and urgency. All the hues of Rachmaninov’s orchestration came through tellingly and the long rising and falling lines were shaped with conviction. 

The scherzo was full of dash and brilliance while the swooning second subject was a fine foil to the energetic music. The fugal episode with which the strings introduce the central section was articulated with great bite, the music incisive and colourful. The return to the scherzo material was thrilling. This was a terrific account of the movement. No less successful, though in a completely different way, was the Adagio. The CBSO’s principal clarinettist, Oliver Janes stepped up to the plate to give a lovely account of the long wistful solo at the start of the movement, His colleagues picked up the gauntlet in a glowing performance of the movement. I noticed that Andris Nelsons dispensed with his baton for the first few minutes, the better to shape the music with maximum expression. Equally noteworthy was the way in which he made the music flow. His tempo was by no means the slowest I’ve heard and it was highly effective: the emotional weight of the music was perfectly realised yet there was never a hint of self-indulgence or wallowing. Instead the ardent lyricism of the music came across in an ideal way, the reading passionate and impulsive yet in a very natural way. This was a very fine performance. 

The finale surged in an exciting and confident fashion. Rachmaninov’s lyrical digressions along the way were given their proper due but never in such a way that the sense of purpose was sacrificed. The performance had great momentum and drive; Nelson’s conducting had an electric charge to it. The CBSO gave their all here and the music pulsated with life and energy. The blazing conclusion elicited an ovation from the audience, and rightly so.

 This memorable performance offered proof, if proof were needed, that this is one of the truly great Russian symphonies. I missed Nelsons’ previous CBSO performances of the work back in 2008, near the start of his term with the CBSO but I’m jolly glad that before he departs I have experienced him in a score to which he is so manifestly suited. My only regret is that I assume the recording microphones, put in place for the concerto, were switched off during the symphony.


John Quinn 

1 thought on “Stephen Hough Champions Dvořák; Andris Nelsons Memorable in Rachmaninov”

  1. John,

    You have produced another first rate review which has covered all aspects of the performances!
    The concerto was delightful with the rapport between Stephen Hough, Andris Nelsons and orchestra very evident.
    The Rachmaninov was moving and dramatic, avoiding the sentimental where many performances fail.
    You are correct that the symphony was not recorded. A great pity, as it was an exceptional wholehearted account which deserved to be captured for further listening!

    Kind regards, Derek


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