Back after 43 years

Stephen Hough was soloist in the rarely heard Tchaikovsky "Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major."
Stephen Hough was soloist in the rarely heard Tchaikovsky "Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major."
Posted: March 19, 2011

Word association:

Tchaikovsky and piano concerto.

No, not that concerto. Another one.

Yes, there are others. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major is an enormously intriguing work, yet it is his ivory-billed woodpecker. The last time it alighted in a Philadelphia Orchestra subscription concert was in 1968, when Gary Graffman played it under Eugene Ormandy, and its return Thursday night, if an artistic vindication, revealed reasons for the rarity.

Specifically, three of them: It requires a pianist of preternatural technique, and a solo violinist and cellist who can conjure a Tchaikovsky pas de deux in mid-piano concerto.

Even recognizing Stephen Hough as this performance's extraordinary soloist, it becomes clear that without violinist Juliette Kang and cellist Efe Baltacigil, Tchaikovsky's unusually structured work would have come across as at least skewed, and perhaps as a failed experiment. The two signaled their heightened second-movement roles by moving forward on stage. More important, they seized on a vision of individuality and shared phrasing so artfully balanced that the piece's identity blurred. With Baltacigil's complex sound and Kang's sophisticated command of her instrument's silver, this was nearly as satisfying a partnership as anything in the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra.

Hough is spectacularly built for the piece, whose demands are off the charts; that he could offer a conquering vision while maintaining the score's essential sense of struggle was in itself a feat. Some of the passagework is a thicket, and in places you might have wished for more clarity, less pedal. But to a degree, his technical mastery made a case for Tchaikovsky as Liszt's equal pianistically, and perhaps even in terms of pushing the boundaries of traditional harmony. On a purely visceral level, he held his own against the ensemble; his third-movement belltones brushed past easy bombast to pure jubilance.

Vasily Petrenko, 34, making his Philadelphia Orchestra conducting debut with these concerts, made notable contributions of control in the Tchaikovsky as well as in Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. The young Russian - chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and, starting in 2013-14, of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra - took the symphony's slow movement very slow, which left the orchestra sometimes straining to sustain sound. But elsewhere he was inquisitive and commanding.

Even taking into account the orchestra's familiarity with the piece, Petrenko presided over a comfort level yielding happy dialogues between ensemble and conductor - trumpeter David Bilger's poised solos, percussionist Christopher Deviney's crisp snare, and a trio of trumpets moving from sloth to breakneck with mechanized precision and inevitability.

Special note: The orchestra will begin Saturday's concert with a performance of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise in memory of J. Mahlon "Jim" Buck Jr., 86, a past board member and a part owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, who died Tuesday. His constant presence and unfailing warmth at concerts will be missed by many, including this critic.


Additional performance: Saturday at 8 p.m., Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Sts. Information: www.philorch.org, 215-893-1999.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611 He blogs at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch.


 

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