Oregon Symphony review: French feast

Pianist Stephen Hough’s breathtaking performance of  Saint-Saëns’s final concerto highlights the orchestra’s Francophilic program

by TERRY ROSS

It was an all-French program, and accordingly three French stars were assembled. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was on hand with La Valse (Waltz). Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was at the concert’s center with his Concerto No. 5 in F Major for Piano and Orchestra, “Egyptian.” And conductor Ludovic Morlot, born in Lyon in 1973, came on loan from the Seattle Symphony, where he has been music director since 2011. But the true star of the Oregon Symphony’s November 21 performance was from England: the acclaimed pianist Stephen Hough, whose playing of Saint-Saëns’s concerto was breathtaking.

Two other Frenchmen, Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918), also made their contributions. Maestro Morlot chose Debussy’s “Cortége et air de danse” from his youthful cantata L’enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son) as his program opener. Not in any way “modern” for its time, the charming five-minute miniature, at least gave an idea of where Debussy came from before he became the revolutionary composer of his later years.

Stephen Hough performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito.

Stephen Hough performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito.

Chausson’s 1891 Symphony in B-flat Major, on the other hand, which closed the first half, was more substantial, at least in length (34 minutes) and fullness of orchestration — though not in its musical content. Throughout its three movements, the symphony more or less constantly introduced new musical fragments that never coalesced into melodies. The effect was of things begun but then abandoned even before they had had time to become interesting. Although Chausson re-introduced some of the melodic material from the first movement toward the end of the third, apparently in an effort to “conclude,” it was far too little, far too late. Maestro Morlot and the Oregon Symphony did their best, leaning heavily on Chausson’s almost interesting orchestral colors, but the piece is a non-starter, notable chiefly for its composer’s championing of Richard Wagner’s musical language, with its reluctance to arrive at codas, not otherwise common in France at the time.

Fortunately, it was then time for Mr. Hough, who in addition to currently touring with the entire cycle of Beethoven concertos, hung his Saint-Saëns trophy on the wall with his recordings of the five piano concertos on Warner Classics, a 2008 event called “the best recording of the past 30 years” by the editors of Gramophone magazine. A MacArthur “genius” grantee, Mr. Hough has made a point of playing the Fifth, Saint-Saëns’s last concerto, composed in 1895-96 for a jubilee concert in 1896 marking the 50th anniversary of his professional debut as a child prodigy, in Paris’s Salle Pleyel as a captivating ten-year-old pianist.

Somewhat mysteriously, the Fifth has been played less frequently in concert (and recorded less frequently) than the composer’s second and fourth concertos, although it is no less significant a piece than either of those, and it shows off Saint-Saëns’s melodic, structural, and orchestral gifts at least as well as any other of the composer’s substantial oeuvre. While this concerto lacks the gravitas of Beethoven’s five, or of Johannes Brahms’s two (both of which Mr. Hough has played and written about), or the over-the-top Romanticism of Rachmaninov’s four, not to mention the audacity of Prokofiev’s five, it nevertheless illustrates Saint-Saëns’s adherence to the “elegant lines, harmonious colors and beautiful succession of chords” that he thought the essence of good music.

Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot conducted the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Brandon Patoc.

Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot conducted the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Brandon Patoc.

Mr. Hough’s playing, at all times seconded by Maestro Morlot’s conducting, was a study in keyboard technique. From the apparent glissandi of the 11-minute first movement, in which speed creates the impression of notes “bending” in a way they cannot on the piano, through the outstanding second-movement Andante, where the so-called Egyptian melody proceeds at a good clip (andante, indeed!) with the wonderful effect of the sustaining pedal being kept down throughout. The third movement, only six minutes long, is no anti-climax but rather a satisfyingly thumping finale.

Mr. Hough arose immediately to acknowledge a shouting standing ovation, and at requests for a second appearance, treated the audience to a quiet, lovely, and brief encore, “Young Girls in the Garden” by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou. Hough closed this piece with an evanescent gesture in the right hand, one he had been performing all night long, which pointed up his great strength as a pianist: his ability to vary the volume not only between his two hands, but among the fingers on each of his two hands. A more complete control over the touch coming from each of the fingers is impossible to imagine.

That said, it remained to be explained how anything had been programmed to follow Mr. Hough’s performance. Normally, the featured concerto closes the program, but it seems clear that Stephen Hough knew his master when he heard him. Whatever the excellences of the Saint-Saëns concerto, Maurice Ravel’s La Valse (Waltz) is a force to be reckoned with. In Maestro Morlot’s reading, Ravel’s piece became the giant edifice it is: a 13-minute send-up (and “best”-up) of Viennese waltzes, in Ravel’s patented miracle of sounds and colors, with no fewer than seven percussionists pounding to a forever-new finish. No wonder Mr. Hough didn’t try to upstage it.

Recommended recordings

Claude Debussy, “Cortege et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue
• Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Warner Classics).

Camille Saint-Säens, Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian”
• Stephen Hough, The Complete Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos (Warner Classics, 2008).
• Marc-André Hamelin, Steven Sloane conducting the Bochumer Symphoniker (You Tube).

Maurice Ravel, La Valse
• Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, The Orchestral Works (Sony).

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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