Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series reaches its
with this welcome Tchaikovsky compendium. Hyperion are to be
congratulated on this bold move to choose such a popular composer
when they could have been accused of yielding, by aloof cognoscenti, to
a popularist audience. No, Hyperion have wisely chosen
to give the listener the opportunity to consider Tchaikovsky’s
total output in this genre. It gives the opportunity to compare
the glitter of that First Piano Concerto with the magnificence
of the Piano Concerto No. 2 with its exquisite second movement,
the jollity of the Concert Fantasia with its unusual and
impressive hugely-spanned symphonic cadenza. Then again there’s
the extraordinarily conceived Concerto No. 3, something of a ‘work-in-progress’ and
a tantalising glance into what might have been.
It will be remembered that Stephen
Hough was featured in the well-received 2003-04 Hyperion
recording of the four Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos and the Paganini
Rhapsody (2 CDs - Hyperion CDA67501/2). This latest release has
attracted much attention and even some ‘special offer’ aggressive
marketing in the advertising columns of the press.
The focus of interest is Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.
2 especially that sublime second movement. I have often teased
my Music Appreciation classes with this lovely movement having
them guess whether it is a violin concerto, a cello concerto
or a piano concerto. This recording includes two extra versions
of this wonderful movement.
I was eager to contrast this recording with the admired 1986
EMI recording (CDC
7 49124 2) with Peter Donohoe supported by Nigel Kennedy
(violin) and Steven Isserlis (cello) and the Bournemouth Symphony
Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Barshai.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor. A sturdy performance
with Hough tough and often fast, maybe too much so at times for
the music to expand as it might in the outer movements. It certainly
radiates a palpable sense of excitement and tension. And yet
there is wit and unaffected tenderness too. Hough’s fleet
figures, in the first movement’s cadenza for instance have
diamond-like brilliance and is a model of clarity. The plaintive
second movement is beautifully shaped with a particularly sensitive
accompaniment. And what a devastating finale! No wonder the audience
went wild. At times, it was almost like hearing this popular
old warhorse for the first time again.
Concert Fantasia in G major. It seems such a shame that
this jolly, extrovert work has languished in relative
obscurity. It’s light, it sparkles and it brims with good
tunes. It is also unusual in that it has a huge, extended cadenza
in its opening movement which is really the development of the
lyrical second subject. Hough makes this cadenza sound symphonic
and at times of expansive grandeur. One is inclined to forget
that there are but two hands working here. The second movement
is again unconventional and is marked ‘Contrastes’.
It opens with a slow, beautiful theme that the writer of the
booklet notes, Marina Frolova-Walker, suggests is Italianate
and perhaps a gondolier’s song. This is rudely interrupted
by a rustic folkdance theme which gives Hough and Vänskä another
opportunity to parade their brilliance.
A most enjoyable ‘concerto’. I hope Hough’s
performance will encourage more performances of this unjustly
neglected work. I cannot remember enjoying this music so much
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major. The elaborate opening
movement of this work, has a huge span - some 19 minutes long
on this recording - critics, at the premiere, thought the work overlong. Its
heroic opening theme is sturdily and excitingly communicated
by Hough - listen in at about 4:45 to about 6:00, and the cadenza
to quote only two instances. Again Vänskä supplies
a vigorous, well-judged accompaniment. The second movement disappointed
somewhat when I compared it with the EMI recording I mentioned
above. Hough/Vänskä take only 13:27 whereas Donohoe
are more leisurely at 17:10. There, the opening of the movement
before the entry of the piano has Kennedy and Isserlis sweeter,
both individually and together, creating a gorgeous nostalgic
glow, with Donohoe continuing their rapture some 4 minutes in.
Violinist Jorga Fleezanis is alas less engaging, less poetic,
Anthony Ross’s cello solo captivates more. Things improve
markedly with the entry of Stephen Hough so much more romantically
spirited, aided by the lovely hushed, beautifully nuanced Minnesota
strings. The Allegro con fuoco Finale races away in glittering
torrents of octaves, Hough leaving the listener breathless.
Enterprisingly, Hyperion include two alternative second movements
to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous Second Piano Concerto. The first,
quite brief - just over seven minutes - was edited by the composer’s
friend Siloti. This revision was a response to those who considered
the Concerto too long and grumbled that the piano part lacked
prominence. So this poor imitation lacks the violin and cello
solos and becomes ‘a mere lightweight intermezzo’ -
Tchaikovsky was horrified. Hough includes this version for interest’s
sake saying that he would never include it in performance. Verdict:
flashily heroic. The second version, edited by Hough, and timed
at 13:55 is a much more attractive alternative. Retained are
the opening violin and cello solos but Hough prefers to give
a symmetry to the whole movement by forsaking the other soloists’ reprise
of this gorgeous opening section saying it - ‘[jars] coming
after the three instruments have been playing together with equal
prominence. It’s as if the pianist is suddenly asked to
leave the room whilst the party goes on for everybody else.’ Instead
he gives the music to the piano so that it leads naturally into
the cadenza, ‘lending a psychological cohesion and obviating
the need to remove any music [as Siloti had preferred]’,
according to Hough. It will be up to individual listener’s
preference but this reviewer prefers to stick with Tchaikovsky’s
original; that opening section is just too divine not to hear
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major. This short, one-movement work hasn’t
been highly regarded by pianists ‘because it lacks a virtuoso part’.
It has never seemed to really catch on with the public probably because its conception,
based on material originally intended for use elsewhere, sometimes feels somewhat
confused and wobbly, its destinations questionable. Listening to Hough’s
bravura performance I cannot help wondering about Taneyev’s assertion that
it lacks virtuosity in its writing; listen to the tricky runs and arpeggios in
the cadenza, for instance. After listening to Taneyev, Tchaikovsky resolved to
expand this work but he died without completing a planned Andante and Finale.
Two short solo items, poignant arrangements of songs by Hough, round off the
programme: Solitude and the well-known None But the Lonely Heart, here,
restrained yet nevertheless heart-rending.
Hough delivers performances of sparkling brilliance, imagination, dynamism and
exceptional pianistic colour. He is strongly and sensitively supported by Vänskä’s
virtuosic Minnesota players. A triumph.
Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series