Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor (1875) [32:17]
Concert Fantasia in G major # (1884) [28:24]
Solitude Tchaikovsky/Hough [2:09]
None But the Lonely Heart Tchaikovsky/Hough [2:44]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major * # (1880) [39:42]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major (1893) [14:32]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (Andante non troppo ed. Siloti) [7:06]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (Andante non troppo ed. Hough) * # [13:55]
Stephen Hough (piano); Jorja Fleezanis (violin)*; Anthony Ross # (cello)
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. live, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, 2009
HYPERION CDA67711/2 [65:39 + 75:31]

Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series reaches its 50th release 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 before.

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 it again. 

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.

Ian Lace 
A triumph ... see Full Review