Hough’s The Loneliest Wilderness Opens Beethoven Cycle

SingaporeSingapore Hough, Beethoven: Ng Pei-Sian (cello), Stephen Hough (piano), Lan Shui (conductor) Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Esplanade Concert Hall, 02.09.2015 (RP)

SSO_Ng Pei-San
Cellist Ng Pei-Sian with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
in Steven Hough’s The Loneliest Wilderness

Hough: The Loneliest Wilderness, Elegy for Cello & Orchestra
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor”

Stephen Hough is performing all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos in three concerts with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. He has a longstanding and close relationship with the orchestra, performing regularly with it both in Singapore and on tour. As the raison d’être for the series, it was fitting that the first concert opened with one of his works. Hough has dismissed the notion that he is a professional composer, but there are 40 published works listed on his website. While acknowledging the influence of Leoš Janáček, Olivier Messiaen and Francis Poulenc, he refuses to be put in a stylistic box, stating: “The great thing about being alive now is that you can compose in any way you want.”

The Loneliest Wilderness set a somber, reflective mood, not surprising in that Hough turned to Herbert Read, one of Britain’s Great War poets, for inspiration. The poem expresses the remorse of an army officer, now an old man, at the loss of his entire company in battle, ending with the plaintive lament, “Oh beautiful men, O men I have loved, O whither are you gone, my company?” As if the slaughter of soldiers was not enough to contemplate, Hough writes in his program notes that he was working on the piece in New York City after 9/11. The horrors of that day and the aftermath found their way into this composition. As someone who witnessed those events up close almost 14 years ago, perhaps the connection was too real. It was hard to shake off the pensive mood that The Loneliest Wilderness invoked.

Hough constructs the elegy on the simplest of musical motives, a pattern of descending fourths and a rising chain of thirds, the latter serving as the basis for the “loneliest wilderness” theme first played by the oboe. A clarity of texture pervades the piece, with harp and glockenspiel punctuating the haunting, melancholy mood. The solo cello line is at times agitated and at others dramatic and soaring. The elegy ends lyrically with the theme played by the cello, then taken up by the bassoon, and its final notes sounded by a solo double bass. The young cellist Ng Pei-Sian, who in another era may well have been one of the soldiers of whom Read writes, played with his usual consummate musicianship and rich yet incisive tone. It was powerful playing. The peaceful, hushed G-major chord with which The Loneliest Wilderness ends did not bring closure as much as a profound sense of sadness and loss as it faded away.

What to say of the two Beethoven piano concertos that followed? Idiosyncratic and self-indulgent are the words that spring most readily to mind, and they apply to both soloist and conductor. If Lan Shui wanted to put his personal stamp on the two concertos, he achieved his goal. A rather slapdash approach to dynamics and phrasing pervaded the first and third movements of Concerto No. 2, perhaps due in part to the brisk tempi that Lan Shui favored. The middle movements of both concerti were lyrical and quite beautiful but almost put one into a trance, not an experience one usually associates with the music of Beethoven. The “Emperor” fared better under this approach, its final movement ending in a glorious burst of energy.

Hough is a superb pianist. There is no disputing that. He is not a virtuoso who impresses with exaggerated pyrotechnics, but his playing is alive with emotion. However, he too seemed to be in a dreamlike state much of the time. I commend his sense of being at one with the orchestra, but keeping his back to the audience during the extended passages where the piano is silent turned the focus inward. He is part of the show, not a member of the audience. The visual connection is vital in the concert hall. Still, as trances go, the second movement of the “Emperor” was a memorable one.

The audience would not let him go without an encore, and Hough obliged, quipping, “You are real slave drivers!” Musing aloud as to just what can one play after Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, Hough opted for the other end of the musical spectrum – Jeunes filles au Jardin by the Catalonian composer Federico Mompou. Its minimalism, lyricism and atonality cleansed the ear, if not the memory of what had come before.

Rick Perdian

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