The London Philharmonic served up a monster concert in terms of length, yet it had a satisfying shape: two great Czech symphonies framing both of Liszt’s piano concertos.
This particular Martinů/Dvořák pairing featured in a 2010 BBC Prom given by the Czech Philharmonic and John Eliot Gardiner. Marin Alsop and the LPO did Martinů’s final symphony proud. Like all of this nomad's symphonies it was born out of wedlock with the country of his birth, this time with an eye on Europe rather than the United States of the first five. Like a flower blossoming, if with an eerie undercurrent, the opening of the work (written for Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony) was here a very slow-burn conception before the Allegro’s nervous energy and mechanisms took over, the life-affirming chorale, Martinů’s musical idée fixe
and credo, given with passion. In this performance everything was securely in place, the quiet playing enjoying an attractive dusky shimmer. The angularities and tattooing of the second movement added a surreal element, and the finale – of questioning and working out – ended movingly by returning to the Dvořák Requiem motto – simple, effective, touching and spiritually accepting. Dvořák’s own Eighth Symphony closed the concert, very much an outdoors work, richly played, vividly detailed. If not everything quite came off, the spirit was there. The finale could have been more exuberant, the horns’ trills of greater virility, and the slow movement, however rapt, a little less funereal. But there was much to relish, not least the bucolic woodwinds and the graceful lilt of the third movement.
Stephen Hough has recently recorded Liszt’s piano concertos for Hyperion (adding Grieg’s evergreen example). Both are compact and cyclical works and have a combined playing time less than either of Brahms’s piano concertos (but probably with more notes for the pianist!). Having them both in the same concert back-to-back worked well (when Barenboim and Boulez played them Wagner pieces interspersed the concertos and they were played in reverse order). With spot-on accompaniments from Alsop and the LPO, and notable solos from wind and string principals, Hough was in debonair form – barnstorming, glittering and pliant in the First Concerto, with plenty of propulsion and prestidigitation, elegance and lightness of touch when required, and some temperament, too. The coda was given with a ‘let’s go for it’ attitude – thrills and spills ensued. The LPO’s winds opened the Second Concerto most poetically, Hough tenderly requiting such entreaties. Plenty of devilry too (Hough in league with) and there was a seamless increase in tension and volume. The slow section was nocturnally rhapsodic and the martial music proudly stated. Come the exhilarating coda, Hough really went for those glissandos!