Could it, should it, be the job of every conductor and every orchestra with every concert to convince their audience that the piece being performed is the greatest symphony or concerto or whatever ever written? I’d say perhaps so.
And tonight, a conductor I’d never heard of convinced me, somewhat despite my reservations, that Schumann’s second symphony is, indeed, one of the greatest symphonies in the repertoire.
Adrian Prabava is a name I’d never heard before look at this evenings program, but his teachers’ names are certainly household ones: Kurt Masur and Bernard Haitink. Indonesian, studied in Germany, where I believe he is currently located, but anyway… there was something else about this evening…..
Oh, right. Stephen Stinkin’ Hough….
I could have watched the man perform the first Brahms concerto after his Chopin encore, and then all five Beethoven concertos, and then, oh, I dunno, Bartok, then Shostakovich… all through the evening. The man is something of a miracle of focus and spontaneity.
But first things first. Prabava and the NSO did something wonderful, I think, with the Schumann… I haven’t ever really been terribly passionate about Schumann’s symphonies. That’s not to say I don’t like them, but I don’t ever recall thinking “It’s time to turn on a Schumann symphony.” That being said, when it started this evening, I thought “Oh, yeah, this one!” It’s easily my favorite of his. In my article on the piece, I linked to a fantastic article written by Tom Service about the work, and this was my first time to hear it live. A few fellow concertgoers expressed that they felt it got better through into the third and fourth movements, but I’d say I was captivated from the beginning, no questions asked. It was nothing less than Beethovenian, from the standpoint that yes, it was wholly Schumann, but it had that almost spiritual, powerful undercurrent, a driving yet fluid kind of subtle energy that supported the piece from the inside. The first movement was spectacular, epic, the kind of solid, clean, intense performance that drives even the most polished of concergoers to have to resist the urge to clap between movements. The scherzo was played at an almost-unsustainable speed, but still effective. The third movement, to me, lost a teeny bit of that energy, not just the obvious slowing of tempo, but a bit of the forward motion. Still a beautiful movement, and the tie-ins to earlier material were present. The final movement was superb, and it felt like if the conductor had maybe some more time with the orchestra, they’d have knocked everyone’s socks out of the park (how’s that for mixing metaphors?) It really was a breathtaking, captivating experience, and seeing the kind of charisma and focus and leadership from Prabava put me at ease for Hough and the Brahms.
After the twenty-minute intermission, I took my seat again and wondered if maybe I should have taken a restroom break before what I already well know to be one of the greatest, most epic piano concertos in the repertoire. Stephen Hough Himself walks out to greet us in a very slim, understated all-black suit, Nehru jacket, not even a white collar peeking through. Brahms begins… and charming is too cheap a word to use… The Brahms is a powerful, captivating piece to begin with. In my article on that piece, I referenced Hough’s article that asks “which is first among equals?”, speaking of the two Brahms concerti. He speaks of the beginning of the second, which he played tonight, “that gentle, lapping, ascending arpeggio (has a more intimate moment of chamber music even been woven into a piano concerto?)” and the second concerto sounded tonight like setting out to sea, beginning on the beach, walking out to the water and wetting your toes, and then sailing farther and farther out, stormy “little wisp of a scherzo” and all. Hough exuded a strange but mesmerizing balance of at once extreme, intense focus juxtaposed with a refreshing, effortless sponaneity, to the point that it was almost perplexing. I was speaking just now with a friend about Hough’s presence on stage, and I described him as subtle, but a better word used was ‘restrained’ (thanks, DA). There were times, I swear, when Hough made the Steinway rattle into my chest, but it seemed as if his fingers both never left they keyboard and also seemed not to touch it, just kind of dancing lightly over it. But the sounds he made… It is a mystery to me how handfuls of people can press the same keys on the same Steinway and produce different qualities of sound. Baffling.
In any case, Hough’s poise and focus and freeness were nothing less than breathtaking. It seemed as if we could all walk out of the hall, if none of us were there, that he’d play with the same intensity, as if it was some matter of his very existence to play this work this evening in this hall on this piano, but that intensity never got in the way of a living, breathing, welcoming interpretation that invited us all along on his journey. He is indeed a performer like no other. There was no autograph signing, but after many returns to bow and accept applause he hushed the audience by returning to the piano, and with his Stephen Hough voice said “this piece is from a composer who…” and paused, and I thought maybe he’ll play a piece from a composer that like, no one’s heard of before or something… “who both Schumann and Brahms loved very much. It’s a Chopin nocturne; I’m sure you know it… Many of you have probably played it.” And then he played the op. 9 no. 2 nocturne in very much the same carefree, effortless yet deeply focused manner, and a kind of whimsical, magical, youthful atmosphere enveloped the room, like walking home from an evening at the fair with your friends on a starry night, exhausted but invigorated by the memories you know you’ve created.
It was a spectacular evening, one I will not soon forget, and I hope (need it be said?) to see The Hough again very soon. I am currently purchasing his Brahms. Thank you, and Bravi.