Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor languishes in the popularity stakes behind his Violin Concerto and way behind the later Cello Concerto in B minor. Crudely put, the popularity of these concerti is directly proportional to the number of good tunes they contain. There are more riches in Dvořák’s writing than just his melodies, however, and so it is good to have the chance to re-appraise this lesser-known work in the hands of a thoughtful and virtuosic pianist.

Stephen Hough © Sim-Canetty Clarke
Stephen Hough
© Sim-Canetty Clarke

Stephen Hough is just such a pianist, of course, and he has recently written about the work’s technical challenges, reminding us that Dvořák was no pianist himself. This may explain why the solo part is so very difficult, as Hough points out, with the unfortunate further problem of not actually sounding all that difficult to the average concertgoer. It’s certainly not a flashy solo part and there are few grand Romantic flourishes in the manner of a Liszt concerto, for example. The struggle and heroism are reminiscent of Brahms’s earlier first piano concerto but there is much less of the German composer’s symphonic grand planning in Dvořák’s opening movement.

Hough’s playing, too, was heroic in the many passages in which the soloist has to project their arpeggiated accompaniment to the main action that takes place in the orchestra. He also delighted in the moments of repose, including the lovely “Twinkle, twinkle” melody that cannot fail to cheer. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons played with both heft and beauty, though orchestra and soloist took a little while to settle their tempi together. Nevertheless, there were lovely solo contributions from the principal bassoonist in the first and second movements and the principal horn in the second, an achingly tender balm after the relative bombast of the first.

While it felt as though Hough and Nelsons were having to strain every sinew to sell the first movement to the audience, they seemed to relax and have a great deal of fun in the dance rhythms of the Allegro con fuoco finale. This was evidenced in Nelsons’ characteristic leaps from the rostrum and a look of pure delight from Hough when the conductor and orchestra pulled off a remarkable feat of rubato – a grand pull-up into the orchestral ritornello after the development section. I think it will be a while before I fully appreciate this Cinderella work but with Hyperion’s microphones present at least I’ll be able to return to this team’s performance when the recording is released.

Rachmaninov’s epic Second Symphony is now in the privileged position of not requiring any special pleading with audiences – certainly not the capacity audience at Symphony Hall. This was not always so: for much of the 20th century, conductors opted to perform it in revisions with significant cuts, often reducing the duration of the piece to as little as 35 minutes. Without cuts, the piece often lasts around an hour or so. There were no detectable cuts in Nelsons’ performance with the CBSO. The only concession to duration came in the omission of the first movement exposition repeat, which is a shame given that the interpretation was so compelling at this point.

Nelsons’ knack of scrupulously shaping phrases worked well in the spacious introduction. The climax of this introduction was suitably overwhelming and the CBSO strings, founded upon a rock-solid bass section, were fulsome indeed. Throughout the movement there was drive and fire where needed and just enough space for the gloriously expansive melodies to bloom. I suspect, however, that other conductors would have found more colours in the full orchestral passages, which sounded too bright in the generous Symphony Hall acoustic. It is not only Russian orchestras that do well in this repertoire by adding shapely vibrato in the trumpet lines.

Unfortunately, the rest of the performance did not quite live up to the standards set in the first movement. The scherzo second movement began vigorously and at an exciting pace, the CBSO violinists clearly unfazed. Nelsons' spotlighting of a tuba pedal note, unnoticed by me in previous performances, was a highlight but it seemed from this point on that Nelsons was more score-bound than usual, relying on frequent 'windmill' gestures to direct the broader sweeping string melodies. This was not a problem in itself but these moves did not tend to elicit the gorgeous response intended nor did it make for focused ensemble. It took a moment for the principal clarinettist to find his sound in the famous third movement solo. I would have preferred a bit more personality but it was certainly subtle and mellow. The movement as a whole had a tendency to drag due to excessive rubato and Nelsons' habit of leaning on the rostrum rail resulted in some irritating rattles. The work’s finale was satisfying enough and rapturously received in the hall but I didn’t feel the performance was of this team’s remarkable best.