Conductor James Gaffigan returned to Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall with pianist Stephen Hough to an enthusiastic audience on April 11, the last of their three performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra by its nature is a crowd-pleaser. Written after almost 30 years of concertizing, his first concerto mixed many of his most mindboggling keyboard techniques with eclectic styles experienced over his many years as a performer. His pianistic theatrics belied the integrity of his genius, an aspect not lost on Hough, who is widely praised for his interpretation of Liszt’s music. That praise is well-deserved — he does indeed have a special skill and extraordinary mindfulness of Liszt.
To fill Liszt’s shoes on the concert stage is no small task, but Hough’s enjoyment was evident from the start. He shared something personal that pulled the audience into his music, tugging the soul like a fiery sermon. His astonishing technique and artistic fidelity make him unique, but his sensitivity to the supra-segmental aspects of the music, his control of the suspense with dynamic and timing, made him exceptional.
The Allegro maestoso was an imposing statement — dark and dramatic, full of deliciously interlaced solos. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour led the strings in a vigorous opening of the poetic Quasi adagio, paving the way for Hough’s passionate development. The Scherzo was delightful; its famous triangle accompaniment was light and artistic. Hough defied the physical laws of biomechanics with his high-flying cadenza, then his finale brought the opening theme home again, only more of it — faster, livelier, showy. His extended trills were tantalizing, their teasing dynamical nuance anticipating the final blowout, after which the audience leapt to their feet. Bravo to Hough for a captivating performance!
Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 9 was the single work of the first half of the program. From the street to the seat, and then headlong into a heavy session with Brahms was difficult, even though the Third is quintessential Brahms from the peak of his art. A popular subject of numerous recordings over many years, mostly Beethoven-inspired, there are many interpretations encompassing a range from Classical to Romantic. Gaffigan imbued the first movement with a deliberately restrained tempo and meticulously controlled the overall tension and subsequent relaxation with a confident, natural flow of movement.
The first movement waxed Classical, its motion sustained by a constant gentle pulse, but the slow tempo stalled under the weight, its surges and surprises barely sufficient to propel it forward. The second and third movements were also subdued. Clarinetist Burt Hara had a superb evening overall, but his playing in the Andante was exceptionally beautiful. Robert deMaine welcomed the third movement with his rich cello sound, and the solo horn passages from Andrew Bain were delightfully sonorous. Gaffigan ratcheted up the drama considerably in the finale, bringing Brahms’ fully developed themes from the echoes to a grand internal climax and a great satisfying final release.
Richard Strauss’ “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome ended the concert with nine minutes of lurid excitement. Ariana Ghez’s oboe solo was wonderful — seductive and engaging. The power and affect of the orchestra, finally unconstrained, was overwhelming. A dance to remember!
~Theodore Bell, Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.