There were another couple of treats for pianophiles last week: two brilliant but very different virtuosos—and I use the term advisedly—giving Festival Hall audiences a decent notes-for-their-buck ratio (And sorry to non-pianophiles [pianophobes?] for not covering the rest of these programmes in any detail). First came Stephen Hough’s bogof Liszt, where the ever-debonair pianist rattled his way through the Hungarian composer’s two concertos, one either side of the interval, as Marin Alsop and the LPO did their best to keep up (they were also very fine in a bookending pair of Czech symphonies—Martinu's Sixth and Dvorak's Eighth—that made this quite a long concert). The contrast between Hough’s nimble-fingered pianism and Arcadi Volodos’s more Herculean brand of piano-playing—in Brahms’ whopping B-flat concerto, with the Philharmonia—the next evening was fascinating.
First, it made me wonder whether our ears can sometimes be led astray by our eyes (the visual, after all, is the realm of the empirical; the aural is far more mysterious, requiring, as some theorists on the subject have argued, a quasi-religious act of dot-joining). Was I right to hear the slender Hough’s sound as less powerful than the bulkier Volodos’s? Did the delicacy of some of Volodos’s playing seem all the more astonishing given that it was produced by hands that look like they could shell a walnut? The answers are probably ‘yes’, followed by ‘maybe a little’. And would, on a slightly different tack, more people have flooded the RFH to hear Hough if he didn't seem so nice and, well, English?
What Hough’s Liszt most certainly wasn’t, though, was unassuming or polite. Fuelled, apparently, more by Tokay than tea, it was daring, improvisatory and, in each concerto’s frantic run to the finish line, hair-raisingly exciting. There was a hint of the circus, as there had been when Hough played just the E-flat work with the Budapest Festival Orchestra about this time last year, and when I’d done the pianist a disservice by thinking it was the conductor Iván Fischer who’d driven the tempos on so furiously. Here Hough's spiky attack and hair-pin dynamics made the first concerto here sound more modern than ever, most surprisingly so, given the triangle’s less-than-entirely-serious reputation, in the famous Scherzando section where it features so prominently. Here we suddenly noticed the piano’s percussive writing against sparse string textures and delicate wind interjections. But while Hough’s playing in the lighter textures was brilliantly pointed, and his laconic way the more improvisatory stuff hypnotic, I did still have my doubts about the moments of altogether more outrageous rhetoric—the thundering double octaves and the beefy chords—which seemed splashy and hard-edged but underpowered. Maybe it’s something to do with the way his piano’s conditioned, but it’s a lean sound that could often do with a bit more beef.
No such complaints with Volodos’s Brahms, where the Russian’s sound was typically rich but controlled. He’s not quite worked out what he’s doing with all of this concerto, it seems, and the gargantuan first movement, although despatched with the most astonishing accuracy and facility, seemed occasionally over-interpreted. (Do its big chords demand a certain effort that dictates its own interpretative course? I wondered; and is one left scratching one’s head if they don’t pose those difficulties?) Either way, the final three movements were dazzling in their different ways. First, in matters of ‘mere’ technique it is difficult to imagine anyone matching Volodos’s dynamic range or dexterity: the ability to despatch octaves like single notes, for example, made for a final movement of mercurial brilliance (and rarely have those playful runs up the keyboard in thirds sounded so wispy and light), while the colours of the Andante were perfectly controlled. The encore—I admit not knowing what it was, but have been put out of my ignorant misery by the ever well-informed Classical Source’s review of the concert: Schubert's remarkable C# minor minuet D. 600—was entrancing, with Volodos controlling right-hand voices against a perfectly gauged pizzicato-like bass. The Philharmonia accompanied with some beautiful playing under Tugan Sokhiev, but occasionally risked coming unstuck. They were at their very best, though, in a coruscating account of Shostakovich's Symphony No.8, which stretches that form as Brahms stretched that of the concerto, but to very different, harrowing ends.
Finally, a quick mention for Silent Opera, a brilliant new initiative whose La Bohème I caught at the Vault Festival at the Old Vic Tunnels. I’m writing it up in opera, but suffice to say here that it might be one way of fulfilling the requirement for cheap, accessible opera in an inclusive environment, where the relaxed atmosphere (and attendant drink-swigging and chatting) in no way impedes one’s enjoyment. It works, if you’re wondering, in a way that builds on the idea of 'silent' disco: each member of the audience has wireless headphones and the live singing is mixed directly onto a pre-recorded orchestral soundtrack, meaning that the singers (and audience) can move around a multi-room space like the Tunnels and keep up with the aural action. There are still a few performances left (follow the link above for details) and it is really worth trying to catch. There are plans later in the year for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Keep an ear out and book early; Silent Opera might become very popular.