Like the voices of our more memorable opera singers (the recorded many of the past and the living few of the present), the timbre of a truly distinctive instrumentalist can always be picked out of the crowd. English pianist Stephen Hough possesses this distinctive artistry--not just for his iridescent phrasing, supercharged energy and flawless technique, but for his programming choices and how he interprets them.
Justly lauded for retrieving obscure works from the attics of piano literature, Hough did more than apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at Saturday night's Oregon Symphony concert. He took Camille Saint-Saëns' seldom-heard Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Egyptian," and showed not just what beauties are often left ignored in the dark, but, more importantly, what naked emotions and warm humanity lay within the heart of a notoriously chilly composer.
Bespectacled and witty guest conductor Carlos Kalmar, the symphony's music director candidate No. 2 this season, spoke at length about the evening's program--Mozart's Symphony No. 32, the Saint-Saëns, and Arnold Schoenberg's monster transcription of Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor, sharing his belief that the last would one day seize a firm place in the concert-hall repertoire. (For just about every reason I could think of, this is as likely of the Saint-Saëns as it is unlikely of the transcribed Brahms.)
Saint-Saëns composed his concerto while vacationing in Egypt, enthused by folk songs threading the warm air of Luxor. Egypt, however, was also a place where a closeted gay composer from Paris could let his hair down--and in pianist Hough's hands this concerto most definitely shows us Saint-Saëns at his most revealing, personally and musically. Such is the magical balance of elegance and muscle in Hough's technique that he achieved uncanny tonal effects with the same cool assurance with which he danced through a minefield of fiendish bravura passages. Bells, harp glissandi, richly phrased voicings, cymbals and tambourines, even the arching wail of a muezzin's call to prayer--nothing was beyond Hough's interpretive powers. Significantly, Hough also captured all the confided intimacies of a highly personal work of art.
Maestro Kalmar's vigilant direction lent something of what seemed to be his personality to the orchestra's performance: lean, no-nonsense intellectuality; ebullient, frisky rhythms; and a consistent, never cloying graciousness of phrasing. He sketched Mozart's little symphony with bold, rapid strokes, yet gave it full permission to think itself as weighty as the "Jupiter." Conversely, the brassy Brahms-Schoenberg quartet-as-symphony came off with a detailed intricacy belying its massed forces, which included a percussion section richly Mahleresque in quantity and quality. Alas, some of us have the original quartet locked in our heads, and missed the conversational quality that is the genius and the art of chamber music. But what was missed most of all was the single instrument that wasn't present for this piece, the special colors of which are an ineradicable part of the composer's tonal palette and musical message.
Somewhere out there is one very chagrined piano--and maybe one very chagrined Brahms.