Concert review: Stephen Hough Plays Dvorak - Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday

Of the piano concertos that are recorded with some frequency, the one that has long eluded the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's programmers is Antonin Dvorak's Piano Concerto in G minor.

That is, until now. The key has been to find a soloist that can make its music stand out beyond the mere notes.

Its belated Singapore premiere was given by British pianist Stephen Hough, who joins an elite group of pianist like Sviatoslav Richter, Rudolf Firkusny and Andras Schiff to have championed and recorded it to much acclaim.

Its relative neglect is a mystery because the work is full of good melodies and bravura passages for the piano. The first movement is Beethovenian, down to its opening tutti and piano's entry, reminiscent of the German's Fourth Piano Concerto, and a demanding chord-laden cadenza. Hough musicality shone through like a beacon, with the orchestra sensitively supporting his every musing and flourish.

The slow movement had the quality of a nocturne based on folk song, which received subtle responses with every turn of phrase. This was before breaking out in the spirited and whimsical romp of the finale, where Hough's steadiness, sense of rhythm and pulse were paramount. While this concerto still lags in popularity to the cello and violin concertos, an excellent reading such as this will certainly further its cause.

In keeping with the concert's title, Hough's two encores were also by Dvorak, his own delectable transcription of Songs My Mother Taught Me and the ubiquitous Humoresque in G flat major (Op.101 No.8) in its original piano version.

The rest of the concert, conducted by SSO Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu, was decidedly Nordic. The Dane Carl Nielsen's Helios Overture was an excellent curtain-raiser, a musical depiction of the sun rising and setting, with the Greek god Helios riding his chariot across the skies in between. The double basses opened with a just audible light hum, over which the brass warmed up and eventually took flight in full-throated fashion.

The brass was just as impressive in the Finn Jean Sibelius's Second Symphony, for which Kamu's authority in his compatriot's music was absolute. The warmth that radiated from the playing at its outset, palpably felt on the strings, could melt icebergs and glaciers. The pacing was broad with its intent, and one was made to feel that it was leading to something transcendent. No moment felt sluggish as the music made its way from furtive beginnings to nationalist flag-waving glory.

Like the tone poem Finlandia, this symphony was to inflame passions and patriotic fervour in the hearts of its first listeners, and so it was in this performance. The third movement's agitation had a rallying voice in Rachel Walker's excellent oboe solo, which was as pure and untainted as possibly imagined, and the build-up to the big tune of the finale was thrilling to say the least.

The criticism that the SSO reserves its best by performing well only in overseas concerts must be countered with vigour, and this was a concert that honestly and truly silences the naysayers and their little idle notions.