When a stellar artist such as pianist Stephen Hough reaches the top of his form, the result can be what Charlotte Symphony maestro Christopher Warren-Green called, in the aftermath of an exhilarating program, at a talkback with a remnant of the audience, “the greatest performance of the Schumann I’ve ever heard,” and Hough himself fretting that he had to play Schumann’s Piano Concerto again the following night. The evening had begun auspiciously enough, with a finely textured account of Henry Purcell’s Chacony in G minor, as arranged by Benjamin Britten for string orchestra, rivaling the most lachrymose beginnings to a concert ever staged at Belk Theater. But the orchestra didn’t really ignite – how could it when the Purcell ends so softly and piteously? – until their mighty meeting with Hough. However you describe that special combustion, the spell of it lingered through intermission, when the orchestra tore into Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8.
The evening evoked memories of two other concerts at the Belk within the past six years. With Ingrid Fliter at the keyboard and Andrew Grams on the podium, we had the same pairing of Schumann and Dvořák in 2008. Even more memorably, just a week after he had performed at the wedding of the Prince of Wales in 2011, Warren-Green returned in triumph and teamed with Hough on the Grieg Piano Concerto, a more virtuosic masterwork whose second theme has a clear kinship with the brooding orchestral theme in the Schumann’s opening movement. From the first bars of Schumann’s Allegro, the CSO and the soloist seemed to be challenging one another, answering those challenges, and reveling in the spiraling excellence. Responding to the brief outburst from the keyboard at the outset, the reeds blended beautifully to unveil the first theme, and Hough unleashed his eloquence to repeat it. Then came that brooding theme, announced by the orchestra while Hough ornamented and propelled it. Individually, principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo both contributed to the synergy, whether they took the lead or withdrew to the background to singly accompany the soloist with perfectly judged softness. Hough consistently ratcheted up the tension, never growing bombastic, exploring the argument rather than overselling it. His terrifically paced cadenza, building and subsiding with sure intuition, led to a marvelously crisp orchestral ending.
Hough found a more scherzo-like playfulness in the ensuing Intermezzo than I’d heard before, which somehow freshened the tender Andantino grazioso section that followed, where Warren-Green and the orchestra proved they could be nearly as supple with a tempo. Reaching the concluding Allegro vivace, Hough and the orchestra attacked the stormy passages with that special joy and assurance that occurs when everyone realizes that the summit has been climbed and success has already been achieved. Horns augmented the drama more effectively than you’ll likely hear in recorded versions as excitement mounted for the exuberant finish. The audience, far closer to the Belk’s capacity than usual, gave the performance a sufficiently enthusiastic ovation to warrant an encore – but too tepid in comparison to what the musicians deserved. Nor was Hough’s encore in any way perfunctory as he favored us with a performance that was arguably more laudable than the Schumann, the best account of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 that I’ve ever heard. Play your Rubinstein, Ashkenazy, or Pires accounts on your CD player, if you wish; Hough’s performance and the Belk acoustic were better.
There’s a lot more variety in the opening movement of Dvořák’s Eighth than its Allegro con brio marking would imply. The sections and soloists of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra gave us all of it, and Warren-Green made sure that it all cohered with his meticulous preparation and shaping. Amy Whitehead’s piccolo and Elizabeth Landon’s flute brought us bucolic glimmers that contrasted with the sharp orchestral bursts. Frank Portone’s horn was like a solitary huntsman, and the woodwinds had a rich meditative sound before the onrush of the full ensemble prevailed, led by the brass. We seemed headed toward a death march as the Adagio began, but when the flutes returned with their bucolic twittering, a little more frolicsome than before, we could brace ourselves for further surprises. Sure enough, after this opening pairing of moods was repeated, we encountered a whole new dialectic: a slow countrified air took over, giving way – somehow inevitably – to a grand march. Although Warren-Green informed us that the Eighth is sometimes nicknamed his “English” symphony, the climax here more closely resembles Tchaikovsky’s symphonic work, not surprising when we remember that its debut in 1890 occurred between the premieres of the Russian master’s last two symphonies.
Launching the Allegretto grazioso, the violins took the music beautifully into waltz time, and we heard more lovely playing from Landon leading us to the second subject. After a reprise of the waltz, trumpets cued the brief Molto vivace appendix before the wild Allegro ma non troppo final movement. Trumpets heralded the fireworks to come, but it was the full brass section with wonderfully neighing trombones that ultimately conquered. Melodic inventions profusely stream from Dvořák’s pen here, so we had more delightful filigree from Landon, and there was a warm teaming up of the cellos and the violas echoing the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. Kavadlo cued the subdued section before the final mad stampede with his clarinet, but it was oboist Ulaky who had the last sweet utterance before the thundering hooves. Like Grams before him, the thrilling climax of Dvořák’s Eighth made Warren-Green want to dance with his encore. Whereas Grams chose one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Warren-Green opted for one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. Giddily, the maestro told us it would be “number whatever” (my leading suspects are Nos. 8 or 1 from Op. 46, both Furiants), although the score was right behind him. On the heels of such a rousing evening, it was impossible to question anything Warren-Green might say.
This program will be repeated March 15, in the same venue. For details, see the sidebar.