Sadly the first half of this concert, consisting of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto, was deeply disappointing. Pianist Stephen Hough is well known, experienced and, judging by the impressive list of artists/ensembles he has performed with, he is well thought of.
I was looking forward to see and hear this world-renowned pianist for the first time. All was well while Hough walked on the stage and settled at the piano. No fuss, no ‘I am the great artist’ attitude. It appeared that a modest, self-effacing artist might deliver pure Beethoven.
The technical difficulties of the Emperor piano part are considerable. All those virtuoso runs, for instance octave passages in both hands, make life difficult for the performer. But do these passages have to be so very boring for the listener? Can’t they be played with dynamics as, it so happens, often suggested by Beethoven? Even when playing softly, Hough was unable to relax. Sections marked very soft (pianissimo) and relaxed (leggiermente) in the score sounded harsh and relentless.
The first movement is full of contrasts between the heroic/heavy orchestral passages and some lyrical piano passages. In this performance, however, even the lyrical was supplied by beautiful first oboe phrases and by the ever-reliable LSO first bassoon. There was also a lovely dialogue between the first flute and the first bassoon in the slow movement. Hough’s attack of the first note in the third movement, admittedly marked very loud (fortissimo), literally made me jump in my seat. I am sure he could argue his musical point eloquently (I believe Hough is a writer as well as a pianist) but in practice his constant battering of the piano lost the shape and design of this marvellous concerto. Ironically, by playing loud more often than not, Hough lost the impact of composed sudden accents (sforzandi).
I could not help wondering what pleasure Hough got out of this performance? He certainly did not enter Beethoven’s Elysian heights and neither did the audience. Conductor Yakov Kreizberg (familiar from the Royal Opera’s recent Macbeth) did his very best to bring drama into the performance. The contrast between his rather theatrical conducting and Hough’s matter of fact piano bashing was almost comical. Conductor and soloist were like chalk and cheese. Nevertheless, to the conductor’s credit, the ensemble was acceptable. Clearly pianist Stephen Hough has many admirers: they were evident in the queue waiting to congratulate him. But the general audience (and Beethoven) was not served well with Hough’s delivery of the great Emperor concerto.
The second half of the concert was superb. Kreizberg conducted the 68 minute-long complicated Shostakovich score from memory. He clearly knew the music and he demonstrated it with an electrifying performance. The London Symphony Orchestra responded with superb playing. Ensemble was tight all way through and all solos were impeccable. The timpani gets plenty of chances to shine, and that he did. The cymbal clashes were magnificent, the solo bassoon’s song was beautiful, the viola section delivered its long melody of a revolutionary song with accuracy, patience, passion and virtuosity in the high passages. No more viola jokes, please! And we relished the rare presence of church bells, played effectively by a member of the percussion section.
It is debatable whether Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 is programme music of high art or excellent film music (without a film). It does, nevertheless, depict scenes of the October 1905 Russian Revolution. The melodies utilised in this symphony would have been known to Russian audiences when Shostakovich composed the work in 1957. Indeed, I myself recognised some of these melodies from my youth when we sang them at campfires in our pioneer camps in communist Hungary.
With so many excellent Russian conductors conducting them (Rostropovich, Gergiev, and now Kreizberg) and with a sprinkling of string principals of Russian background, I wonder if members of the LSO are learning to speak Russian. Judging by this concert, they have already learnt the musical language of Russia.