Alan Gilbert was an assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1990s during the Christoph von Dohnányi era. Now music director of the New York Philharmonic, Gilbert made a welcome return visit to Severance Hall this weekend, where he teamed up with British pianist Stephen Hough for a highly satisfying performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Op.33, as well as one of Gilbert’s specialties, Carl Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” symphony. Orchestra, conductor, and soloist turned in blazingly romantic performances full of subtle musicianship.

In the concert’s program book, Stephen Hough is quoted, describing the Dvořák concerto as “really, really hard to play … but doesn’t sound like it — not a performer’s choice combination.” Dvořák had some piano study in his background, but was not a virtuoso, and the concerto is a case of a little knowledge being dangerous. The technical difficulties are instantly apparent: streams of intricate passagework that rarely stop, particularly in the 17-minute first movement. Quite often the piano embroiders filigree into the orchestral texture. But what’s not to like about this concerto? It has all the best characteristics of a Dvořák symphony, plus piano – beautiful melodies, expert orchestration, and drama. Stephen Hough made it all seem not just easy, but musical as well. His range of pianistic colors was enormous, from thundering chords to delicate melodies. The second movement Andante sostenuto was especially lyrical, with several scherzo-like passages along the way. Hough and Gilbert were able to mold phrases to model the ebb and flow of the music. The soloist began the fugal opening of third movement dramatically, with the orchestra soon joining in the same manner. Alan Gilbert and The Cleveland Orchestra were sympathetic accompanists.

Following an extended set of bows, Stephen Hough came back for a solo encore, Dvořák’s famous Humoresque in G flat major, Op.101 no.7. Long-parodied as a sound track for children’s cartoons, Stephen Hough played it with winning sincerity and melting simplicity. 

Carl Nielsen composed his Symphony No. 4 between 1914 and 1916, in the midst of the European upheaval of World War I. The subtitle he gave to his symphony, “Inextinguishable,” refers to the endurance of the human spirit. The four movements are played without pause, although they are readily identifiable as separate. The themes are closely related musically, and reappear as the symphony progresses. Although there are many bombastic climaxes in the score, often the orchestration is for only a small number of instruments.

Alan Gilbert led an electrifying performance, taut and always pressing on, but giving time for the more serene passages to speak. He made the most of Nielsen’s brilliant crescendos and diminuendos, moving from full orchestra to just a couple of instruments, and vice versa. The first movement's main theme in the clarinets, in parallel thirds, is heard again at the end of the symphony in a glorious fanfare of long note durations. The delicate second movement had echoes of a folksong. The bulk of the movement was played with seamless blend by the woodwinds, with string pizzicatos along the way enhancing the texture. The prominent cello solos in the first and second movements were well-played by principal Mark Kosower. The parallel thirds in the clarinets reappear here, but in descending scales. The Adagio of the third movement featured an austere violin melody played by concertmaster William Preucil. Eventually the Cleveland Orchestra brass section shone in a slow-moving chorale with interjections from the strings. The fourth movement Allegro, often in contrapuntal texture, features a deafening “battle of the timpani” – this symphony must be very few orchestral works to feature two sets of timpani with clearly independent parts. This cataclysm is soon calmed with a huge diminuendo that sets up the final crescendo and conclusion. The effect was thrilling.

The concert opened with Robert Schumann’s Overture to Byron’s “Manfred”, Op.115. Three abrupt chords open the piece, but then the tone is slow and expressive, building to a passionate central section. Alan Gilbert whipped The Cleveland Orchestra into a suitably romantic frenzy. The momentum eventually slows, and the overture ends quietly. Aside from a few momentary brass intonation issues, it was a solid performance, but no match for the Dvořák and Nielsen works.