Vancouver Symphony

Brahms and Haydn

Smetana The Moldau Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 Haydn Symphony No. 104, London

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Piano Stephen Hough (Cherniavsky Laureate)

Dates 23 April 2007@ 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre Reviewer J H Stape

With unerring programming such as this -- a nationalist tone poem, a major post-Romantic piano concerto, and a key symphony of the Classical period -- all the elements were in place for an illuminating concert of contrasts, tonal variety, and lessons in period style, and these were delivered with taste, gusto, and virtuosity.

Smetana's Moldau (1874), a chestnut of the late-nineteenth century repertoire, maintains its firm place on concert programmes because of an unabashed lyricism that goes straight to the heart. Programmatic music is often enough second rate (Respighi comes quickly to mind), but the Moldau, even without thoughts of forests and castles, and happy peasants, never fails to please because of its relentless onward sweep. Maestro Tovey excels in presenting this kind of music: rapidly shifting dynamics, large effects, unconstrained lyricism, and it is no secret that the Slavic and Russian repertoire are one of the VSO's strengths. Refined playing and deft colouring were the order of the day in the rendering of Smetana impassioned lyricism.

Brahms's second piano concerto, a warhorse of immense emotional appeal, demands a soloist with steely technique and a conductor capable of holding tensions to the breaking-point. Both Stephen Hough and Maestro Tovey rose toweringly to the occasion. If tempi were at some moments overly brisk (with a consequent loss of colour), dramatic excitement was kept unerringly in the performers' sites.

Urgency and majesty were nicely balanced, and Hough's playing elegant and stylish, never drowned out by the orchestra in the most extreme forte passages. The brass section seemed slightly muddy at a few crucial spots, but that may have been the Orpheum's notoriously wobbly acoustics at work. By contrast, the woodwinds came out brightly, and the cellos and basses positively shone, with principal cellist Lee Duckles delivering heartfelt and technically impressive playing in the work given to him in the Andante.

The rapturous response from the audience to Stephen Hough's dazzling pianism earned a graciously played and extremely intense encore by Paderewski (which not stated).

Haydn's"London Symphony," his last of 104, a frothy and exuberant exploration of happy themes and utterly genial, received a dynamic, even impassioned reading. Scaled down, the orchestra still seemed a bit large for this most classical of Classical works. Vigorous and expansive, the charming minuet, played with brio, was perhaps the highlight of a piece suggestive of equanimity, good spirits, good humour, and a rightness about the world that is not our own. This effusion of happiness closed an evening of high level music-making, and the reasons why the VSO continues to attract large and diverse audiences are not hard to seek.

© 2007 J H Stape