In an era when performance
practice issues, right down to careful
research into the regional dialects
used for vocal music, are all the rage,
it seems rather unusual that the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries have been left
out of the fray. Andrew Litton and Stephen
Hough have taken some steps to bring
more recent music into the discussion
with these enlightening performances
of the concertante works by Rachmaninov,
who despite his life-span, stuck firmly
with romantic ideals.
It has been the tendency
in recent decades to over-sentimentalize
Rachmaninov’s music, thus transforming
passionate lyricism into syrupy languor.
Not so these performances, available
in the UK and due for release in the
US on 14 October 2004. Hough has taken
great pains to listen carefully not
only to the composer’s own recordings,
but also to those of artists that he
most approved, specifically Josef Levhinne
and Vladimir Horowitz. He and Litton
have also meticulously corrected errant
orchestral parts that have been so often
used as to become canon.
This is playing of
the highest order both from soloist
and orchestra. So often, with a new
recording of such well-traveled works,
it is the tendency of the cognoscenti
to immediately dismiss the living performer
as in no way capable of comparison to
some famed corpse. I am here to tell
you that Steven Hough can hold his own
against any Horowitz, Richter or Rubinstein.
His fleet playing, clarity of line and
phenomenal technique shine like beacons.
There are no studio tricks to cover
mistakes; these are live recordings.
Andrew Litton shapes the Dallas Symphony
into a taut ensemble, playing with a
unity of sound and an attention to the
give and take of melodic line that would
be the envy of any fine choir. This
orchestra sings together with abandon.
Most refreshing are
the tempo choices, particularly in the
more famous, often-overwrought second
and third concerti. Gone are the layers
of overt varnish. Mr. Hough never stretches
a moment for his own sake, rather he
concentrates on the lyricism and forward
momentum that were the hallmarks of
the composer’s own playing.
I found these readings
to be revelatory and refreshing. For
the first time in a long time, I was
actually riveted to the speakers, anxiously
anticipating the unfolding story. Too
often, a listener can simply take for
granted that he knows what will happen
next. What a treat to have a few surprises.
And, lest one think
that there is no romanticism here, start
your exploration of this set with the
famous "18th Variation"
from the Paganini Rhapsody, and you
will rest at ease. Mr. Hough plays this
achingly lyrical line to absolute perfection.
Program notes are peerless.
The detail is meticulous and the writing
style is captivating. The Dallas audiences,
notorious for their noisiness and lack
of decorum, (I can say that, I live
here) are on their very best behavior,
making for studio quality recording
with Hyperion’s customary finesse. I
could have lived without the applause
at the end of each concerto, but that
is a small complaint given the extremely
high quality of everything else about
A must have. A revelation.