Second Concert in Beethoven Series Hits the Mark

SingaporeSingapore Cherubini, Beethoven: Stephen Hough (piano), Lan Shui (conductor) Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Esplanade Concert Hall, 5.9.2015 (RP)

Pianist Stephen Hough with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Cherubini:   Overture to Anacréon
Beethoven:  Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 & Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

This was the second of three concerts traversing Beethoven’s piano concertos with Stephen Hough and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The first left a mixed impression, but this one hit the mark. What made the difference? In my estimation, it was a matter of focus. Luigi Cherubini’s Anacréon Overture was an ideal curtain raiser to the two Beethoven piano concertos that followed. Hough’s The Loneliest Wilderness, which opened the first concert, was just too powerful a work with which to begin the series. It needed its own space to resonate.

Here the structures of the concertos also made a difference, as No. 1 and No. 4 have fewer extended passages for either orchestra or piano alone. The constant interplay between orchestra and piano created a musical frisson that was at times lacking in the first concert. Finally, there was less sense of an occasion, as it was not opening night with speeches and honors to be bestowed. It was just a concert, the sweet spot for all concerned.

Beethoven regarded the Italian-born Cherubini as the greatest of his contemporaries. His opera-ballet Anacréon, ou L’amour fugitif quickly faded into oblivion after its premiere in 1803, but the overture has survived. It brings a sense of occasion to any concert, and so it did here. Lan Shui kept the lyrical moments in perfect alignment with the swift, swirling passages in the strings. The thrilling fortes raised the energy level in the hall and created an air of expectation. (It is an overture after all.) From this performance, it was apparent why Beethoven so admired Cherubini. It must have been akin to looking in the mirror and seeing your own reflection, only in a more heroic visage.

Let’s leave to the musicologists the problems of numbering Beethoven’s early piano concertos. What is clear is that he broke new ground with his 1795 Concerto in C major. Structurally, it is still firmly rooted in the Classical era, but in its range of emotion Beethoven is pointing toward the future. With Lan Shui, intensity and energy are seldom lacking, and the first and third movements offered those aplenty. He conducted with authority and a sense of scale. Scale was important, as this concerto also has tranquil, tender moments, and in those Lan Shui was an alert, sensitive accompanist to the delicate pianissimos that Hough spun. But it was in the Largo that their musical dialogue was at its finest, the lyrical piano passages alternating seamlessly with the powerful, crashing statements of the orchestra. It was here that this concert took flight, with Hough’s splendid playing of the first movement’s cadenza serving as the launch pad.

Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto was premiered in 1807, the last at which he was the soloist due to his increasing deafness. It was not only a period of rapid innovation in terms of compositional techniques and increased emotional content in the music, but also in terms of the instruments. The piano for which this work was written had a greater range, more power and greater tonal possibilities than did its predecessors. Beethoven exploited them chiefly in the memorable melodies for which this concerto is known, and Hough imbued them with all the beauty and emotion for which one could hope. Beethoven unleashed the full power of the orchestra, complete with trumpets and tympani, only at the end, as did Lan Shui. The audience exploded with applause and cheers as this monumental work reached its  brilliant, triumphant conclusion.

Hough, tasked with playing an encore after what he termed “one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments,” turned to Chopin. The Nocturne in E- flat major is perhaps one of Chopin’s most famous works, but Hough’s sole intent might not have been to reward an extremely enthusiastic audience with ear candy. Cherubini and Chopin were friends and are buried near each other in Père Lachaise Cemetery. These connections cannot have been lost on Hough.

The series will end with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.   When told that his Symphony No. 5 was the greatest creation since Beethoven, Bruckner exclaimed that he had waited his entire life to hear someone say that. The musical journey started by Beethoven reaches its culmination with Bruckner, the last of the great German Romantic composers. Unfortunately, I will not be there for the close.

Rick Perdian


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