Hough and plenty of pough from the Sydney Symphony

September 18, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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While you couldn’t call last night’s SSO concert of Dvorak and Bruckner easy listening, there were rewards aplenty if you were prepared to engage with the music, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough

Although Dvorak’s cello concerto ranks with the best of the genre, his piano concerto ends up being relegated to the second eleven in popularity. Every now and again it gets dusted off and given an airing, as was the case in this concert under the fingers of English pianist (but Australian citizen) Stephen Hough. He chose to play the original score rather than the one that had been tinkered with by several musical notorieties who wanted it to sound more spectacular.

One might expect a joust between piano and orchestra in the romantic style of the period, but the original Dvorak score often muffles the piano under an orchestral blanket. Make no mistake; the solo part is among the most difficult of all piano concertos, which browns off a lot of pianists who see their wrist-breaking work not paying off at the other end. However, in the extraordinarily powerful yet sensitive hands of Stephen Hough, it came alive. Mark you, it took plenty of effort, evidenced by Hough’s frequent towelling down and key cleaning expeditions with his black handkerchief during bars when the orchestra was busy attending to musical matters elsewhere.

Few people would have walked away humming any of the tunes (because the impression the concerto gives is a collection of interesting parts that don’t quite make a whole) the excitement Hough and the orchestra were able to generate in the final quarter of the last movement built to a compelling climax. A sustained barrage of applause drew an encore from Hough. He sat down, leaned back, closed his eyes and played Dvorak’s Humoresque with a depth of feeling that dumbed the audience into total silence.

With the Steinway parked away from the action, a much bigger orchestra filled the stage for Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. Three trombones, three trumpets and five horns sitting on the top row gave fair warning that there’d be some big statements coming from the brass – and there were.

Bruckner tends to divide audiences into lovers and haters. However, with some pro-active listening, the haters can be converted. Knowing that Anton Bruckner was a deeply religious man (he was brought up in a Catholic monastery) helps to understand the fire and brimstone passion in his music. It also might explain his tendency to set out on a passage that is heading towards secular sensuality and, sensing this, turns off the gas. One critic described his music as being a passionate journey with too many traffic lights.

Having said that, there were sublime moments – and plenty of opportunities for them too, because the symphony goes for nearly an hour. If sad and solemn turns you on, the second movement marked ‘Adagio with much solemnity’ is for you. Even Tchaikovsky at his most tearful can’t trump Bruckner on the misery scale.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

But there are also march rhythms, fanfares, sweeping landscapes of sound, rushing strings and lots more in this symphony. No instrument goes home unworked.

The conductor, Hans Graf, is Austrian. He comes to Australia with an impressive list of collaborations, the longest being as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra for 12 years. The other orchestras he has conducted include some of the world’s best.

The SSO responded very well to his direction. They showed their respect for him by briefly sitting and applauding when he waved them up to take a bow.

In recent years we’ve seen many entertaining hoppers and shakers on the podium, but Graf is not among them. He is probably the most economical mover I‘ve seen conduct the SSO, which may have contributed to maintaining tight control of the difficult and demanding Bruckner score.

 

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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