Stephen Hough is a very accomplished pianist and composer, whose recent sojourn with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), from November 30 through December 3, was truly a treat. Writer and composer, as well as concert pianist, would be enough to make him a triple threat, but adding in his sparkling musicality, across all genres, made for a truly wonderful pre-concert talk, with Patrick Chamberlain, prior to the December 3 performance at NJPAC, in Newark. Hough talked about Judy Garland’s vulnerability, and her and Frank Sinatra’s phrasing, how they took Frédéric Chopin’s advice to play the left hand in time and the right slightly out of time, in describing their expressive talent. If you’ve never heard vocalists compared to piano virtuosi before, this is ambrosia for thought.
The first act was entirely Sergei Rachmaninoff starting with an orchestral transcription of Vocalise, Opus 34, Number 14. The soprano part that is so vocally haunting is taken by the violins and completely rends the heart with its beauty. Tears that I typically reserve for grand opera came to my eyes with the aching splendor. It was honey refined with rosemary, sunlight with a poignant passing shadow.
The sun returned when Hough took the stage for the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43. This much beloved work has been a concert favorite for some time. Watching Hough’s hands, we see that he is a sorcerer, as he navigates the myriad variations so lightly and fluidly that he could have been improvising his own. Deft and sure, with total control of phrasing and dynamic range, he and Xian Zhang took us on a journey, sometimes perilous, ever toward the “Dies Irae,” or traditional Day of Wrath melody, which fascinated Rachmaninoff. The suite in which it is featured includes scintillating tintinnabulation, giving way to the next movement to a near Impressionistic Romanticism. A lifetime of solo playing and composition came to bear in Hough’s interpretation, a whole much greater than the mere sum of its parts, the piece becomes a waltz, a ballad, a statement of love fraught with Russian majesty it is a Rhapsody in Time. Hough’s playing betrays hours of practice that makes his genius seem so effortless and organic and truly a treat for all the senses.
We were not ready to let Hough go quite yet after the Rachmaninoff and he returned to laud us with Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s “Secreto,” whose influences include Gabriel Fauré and French Impressionism. It was the perfect dessert for the first act.
The second act was entirely Sergei Prokofiev. Maestra Zhang is a champion of his music and this work, Symphony Number Six in E-flat Minor, Opus 111 is the second of what are considered to be his responses to World War II. In fact, while he was writing his Symphony Number. Five, he was sketching this work, which is part of his later, more mature work.
Full of drama and sweep, the first movement in the violins sets the stage and there is a sense of darkness, conflict and emotion. The human spirit is heard in the human alto timbre of the cello, as it threads among a sea of swirling emotion. The second movement is more flowing, passionate, and heraldic at times, as if ushering in a new era. There are bell-like tones that bring in the spirit of change and yet there is a thrumming in the violins that seems to signal portentously. Perhaps it’s a reminder that, even in the midst of our relief, the seeds for similar madness continue to exist. The third movement is a joyous return, like Spring after a long hard Winter, exuberant and fluid, like ice melting and flowing over stones–perhaps the tide of peace will erode those who are currently intransigent. Then, there’s an almost martial return in the horns breaking the reverie, underscored by the strings with a final return to the energy of the first movement, leaving us with a sense of darkness in the midst of our delight—all in all, a thoroughly enjoyable conversation with a great composer.
George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” is coming soon, so visit www.njsymphony.org
for a holiday treat and stuff their stockings with concerts! I’ll see you there!