Stephen Hough plays Brahms

Stephen Hough plays Brahms

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Friday 13 May 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Gustavo Gimeno, conductor
Stephen Hough, piano


Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat Major – Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs – Part 1 – Gareth Farr (b. 1968)
Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10 
– Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)


In short, the Brahms Piano Concerto was certainly the major piece in the concert, and Stephen Hough was a illustrious and brilliant soloist. However the eponymous name for the programme was a disservice to the other two works after the interval in my opinion. Maybe it was a cultural cringe, or a self-deprecating ‘New Zealand’ thing? – but the real stars of this concert was the NZSO and their magnificent individual soloistic personnel- flute, bassoon, French horn, clarinet, piccolo, percussionists, timpani, viola, violin – and particularly – oboe(s) and cello.

The programme notes were excellent – thank you Frances Moore! The biographies of the composers, the pieces and the structure of the movements were well set out, succinct and informative. In the first half, the orchestra was reduced to a early Romantic conformation  – six desks of violins 1 and 2, 10 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, two woodwinds on each part, four french horns, only two trumpets and timpani – no trombones, tuba, harp and other percussionists.

The first movement of the concerto was unassuming but the Stephen Hough exploded in a dramatic flurry of notes. I couldn’t shake off the last piano concerto only 7 days ago – another Stephen.  Stephen De Pledge mastered the Magnus Lindberg Piano Concerto No.2 with a muscular, engrossing rendition – his performance was a ‘lion-tamer’. This concert, Stephen Hough had a much more manageable task, more like a opera divo – dramatic, poignant, florid, trilling and thundering.  The Lindberg was organic but the Brahms was more a conversation, a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra.  Sometime whole melodies or phrases were interchanged.  Sometimes only alternating chords was traded – the orchestra on the on-beat  and the piano on the off-beats or vice-versa. Hough was fluid and dexterous, with a light touch, extraordinary in his dynamic control and placing every note at the ‘right’ moment.

The second movement was an antithesis of the first – dramatic at the start and settled to a more calm, tender theme. As usual, Brahms made a thing of cross rhythms, with emphasis on other beats of the bar than the first. In a memorable moment, the eight-member woodwind choir had a subtle and gorgeous section hued by a background of horns and strings. The melody was simultaneously frolicsome and desperate.

The third movement was divine. The principal cello, Andrew Joyce, was outstanding. His solo, supporting by the second and third cellos with the rest of the section pizzicato, was magical. The violas and violins were suspended above. The oboe, Peter Dykes, emerged from nothingness, matched the cello solo at the octave and proceeded to create a duo. The piano soloist responded with a sensitive filigree of arpeggios, then delved into the depths with a passionate melody. As the movement progressed the dynamic control of the whole ensemble, piano soloist included, was marvellous – pppp, bows were barely moving, woodwind  barely breathing, quiescent. Again, the cello and oboe duo sounded. The resolution of the movement was imminent but it went on for ever – we longed for it and dreaded it. It was a impassioned, ardent moment that seemed to be transcending time and space. Perfect.

The fourth movement was delight after the emotion of the third – an impetuous, lively Hungarian–gypsy dance. The orchestra and piano swapped question and answer throughout. I have to remark on Lloyd Hudson’s subtle piccolo performance – not an oxymoron in this case.

The audience was enraptured by the playing and deservedly so. At the fourth call, a encore was required and Stephen Hough delivered a Chopin Nocturne – absolutely beautiful and appropriate.

After the interval, the Gareth Farr work required that the orchestra was full-sized again: a full complement of strings and harp, piano, celeste, five horns, the whole brass section and five percussionists – Gareth was a percussionist after all!  Again, the programme notes were very helpful, and I noted that one of the dedicatees of the piece was playing too – Jeremy Fitzsimons  was manning the bass drum.  Gareth, and I mean this affectionately, is a ‘cabaret’ composer. He structures his pieces to elicit a maximum response from the audience, building intense climaxes. This brief work was a vehicle to highlight the pan-Pacific penchant of rhythmic drumming. After the strings set the scene, three of the percussionists made a grand entrance and delivered a masterclass of roto-toms technique, imitating slit-log drumming with rim shots. It was an engaging and satisfying experience, giving a shot of ‘down-under’ after the Romantic prequel.

Shostakovich was only a teenager when he wrote this symphony, but it is a master work. I recognised some motives that would re-emerge in his later work, especially in his string quartets. It began with fragmented theme, scattered over most of the orchestra. The viola and the clarinet eventually had the whole theme with a subtle counter-melody from the bassoon. Often, a theme would begin from the flute, or trumpet, violin, oboe, viola, bassoon – but almost always, the clarinet would continue it, with a gloomy, melancholic air. Patrick Barry  had a lot to do in this work!

The second movement set off with a lively tempo but settled down to anaemic, apathetic pace. In the coda, the piano was featured, with three ringing chords answered by the strings, and three dischords that the double basses answered. It was a disquieting, ominous sound.

The symphony mirrored the piano concerto in a way: a sonata in the first movement; a listless, allegro in the second; and an exquisite solo in the third movement. This time the soloist was the first oboe, played by Robert Orr. A wash of string sound accompanied his mournful, plaintive solo, and a cello answered. That led to a military-sounding section: horns, snare drum and trumpets. There was a special timbral moment when muted trumpets had the melody with two flutes in their lower register on a counter-melody supported by cellos and basses. Beauteous.

The fourth movement was capricious – a scurry. At long last the trumpets, trombones and tuba let rip with a loud, noisy melody overriding the rest of the orchestra.  Then a timpani solo interrupted the texture: two thunderous fortissimo rolls – one pianissimo. After another poignant cello solo there was a burst of glory from the whole orchestra to the final cadence.

Gustavo Gimeno, the conductor, was excellent. He had a symmetrical style, mirroring his hand gestures with abrupt pauses in the various position of the beat. He didn’t distract – minimal movements and a stance like a male flamenco dancer about to perform – but when he exhorted a crescendo from the orchestra or gestured to a section he was definite and unequivocal.

The three works were individually well-played, masterful, brilliant – but as a concert, I’m not sure they should be together. I didn’t detect any coherence in the programming – no commonalties or contrasts. It was like having a dinner with three courses at three different restaurants – replete in themselves, but the cuisine was not correlated.



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