Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Concerto is not well known. Pianists invariably refer to it as “ungrateful” or “unpianistic”. In other words, it’s difficult to play but not impressive – the opposite of Liszt’s concertos which require athleticism, are not terribly difficult, yet very impressive. I was passingly familiar with the Dvořák Concerto by way of Rudolf Firkušný’s old mono recording of the concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. But that recording, and most performances, used a version substantially rewritten by Vilém Kurz. Not only is the writing, particularly for the left hand, nearly impossible to play, there are potential pitfalls which challenge the memory – entrances occur at odd places and inconsistently: a pianist begins one passage on the first beat, but when the passage returns, begins the repetition on the second beat, etc. The piece is a monster to learn and rehearse, which may explain why so few perform it.
Stephen Hough, one of today’s most enterprising pianists, brought the original version (with some very slight emendations) to Severance Hall this past weekend. Not only is he blessed with great technical gifts and innate musicality, but he has a characteristic sorely lacking in all too many classical musicians: curiosity. Hough also has the ability to communicate his ideas in a way the average music lover can understand. (For example, in a discussion of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Hough described Paganini’s 24th Caprice as being like “a beautiful, crisp, white, shirt; you can put anything with it: jeans, a tie, evening clothes” – a description which made it easy for the listener to understand why Rachmaninoff, and so many other composers, chose this theme for variations.)
Hough brought to the Dvořák Concerto impeccable technique, sophisticated pedaling (we sat in row K and had an unobstructed view of the pedals) and an unfailing sense of proportionality. Further, there was a sense of directionality throughout the piece, no small achievement in a work which can all too easily be splintered into unconnected fragments. Hough played with virtuosity, but never for its own sake – and I never had the impression that Hough was a “soloist”, but truly a collaborative artist. In short, Hough put his heart and soul into the piece. As a result, the Concerto’s true self emerged: a work of potent emotions, great themes, and solid construction – particularly in the finale where Dvořák combines the two themes in a Bachian manner. I would ordinarily express the hope that more pianists take up the Dvořák, but I sense future performances of this piece will be measured against the one I heard Saturday, and will fare poorly in comparison. The Cleveland Orchestra under Alan Gilbert provided an accompaniment which was hand-in-glove, and the performers were rewarded with a standing ovation.
Hough, noting that Sunday would be Mother’s Day in the UK, offered an encore: his own arrangement of Dvořák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me”, in a beautifully shaded and pastel colored performance, with lovely pedal effects and tones seeming to float from the piano.