Thursday, April 15, 2010

The PSO and a new Prokofiev

Yan Pascal Tortelier

Stephen Hough

The program for the April 9th Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was:

Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor

Stephen Hough, piano

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

The Tchaikovsky is a rarely heard piece and it is unusual to begin a concert with a concerto. It results in late comers being seated after the first movement. This is a sure way to interrupt the flow of the music. It also results in a few uncomfortable moments for the conductor and soloist who must wait until everyone is in their seat and finished coughing. The second piano concerto is nowhere as popular or famous as the composer’s first. The first movement is full of nice sounds but, for me, there were no great melodic moments. There is a grand cadenza that looks fiendishly difficult and which Hough mastered quite nicely. The second movement begins with an unusual three part dialogue between the first violinist, the first cellist, and the piano soloist. It is nothing like a triple concerto, but it may be more like a piano trio. The final movement is easily recognizable as Tchaikovsky- at various places it sounds like the beginning of the “1812 Overture”, or “March Slav” or the three ballets. The concerto is also characterized by few instances where the piano and orchestra play together. Rather it’s the orchestra, then the piano and back to the orchestra. All in all, this piece is not one my top ten list. Hough acquitted himself quite nicely. He is master technician and his playing is large and well controlled. The audience applauded after each movement. This is the first time that I have heard this in Pittsburgh. It is annoying and interrupts the progression of the piece. Mr Hough also received several curtain calls, and he was generous enough to play an encore. Unfortunately I did not recognize it.

The second half of the concert was magnificent. The Prokofiev Symphony is a real 20th century masterpiece. I heard it in Atlanta this year and that review appears elsewhere. The first movement begins with an ascending melody of indistinct rhythm which sets the direction for the entire piece. (Another symphony that begins this way is Tchaikovsky’s first symphony “Winder Dreams” where the introductory theme captures the cold and isolation of winter). Prokofiev as a master of theme development and each movement is characterized by themes being subtly changed and bounced around the orchestra. But Tortelier did something that I have never heard before, and it was thrilling. Prokofiev could be quite lyrical in a sometimes discordant and rhythmically obtuse way. This lyricism often appears in the violins and woodwinds. But then, Prokofiev would use the brass to “melt” the lyricism. It is as if Prokofiev was saying to himself “enough of the sweet stuff”! Tortelier let the Pittsburgh brass play more loudly that I have heard in other interpretations. The conductor seemed to accentuate the tension between the lyrical strings and the discordant brass. This made for a darker and more sinister (in a good way) version of the piece. And when the Pittsburgh brass play, they are precise, taut and magnificent. Tortelier’s interpretation was thrilling and the PSO played magnificently. Unfortunately there was that annoying applause between movements.

I must mention one other small point. I was sitting at the rear of the orchestra under the dress circle overhang. Someone opened a cellophane wrapper and the sound, which bounced off the ceiling, was everywhere! I kept looking up to see if some apparition had a cough. It was a good demonstration of how important acoustics can be.

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