Rachmaninov orch. Stokowski
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3/2
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Traditional American Hymns and Songs *
Sweet by-and-by [arr. Bennett]
Nearer, my God, to Thee
Watchman! Tell us of the Night
Missionary Hymn [all arr. Mason]
Stephen Hough (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Paul Hoskins [assistant conductor in Ives symphony]
Simon Halsey *
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 June, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
The final concert in the CBSO’s Ives symphony cycle reached its culmination – in all senses – with the Fourth, Ives’s crowning achievement in its scope and ambition. Completed (pending, as so often with this composer, an ongoing process of revision) around 1916, the work had to wait until 1965 for its complete public premiere. Leopold Stokowski was at the helm on that occasion, and his sumptuous orchestration of Rachmaninov’s once ubiquitous C sharp minor Prelude opened proceedings – sounding almost like an addition to Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
More Rachmaninov followed with the Second Piano Concerto, Stephen Hough giving a fresh perspective through drawing on the composer’s own example in his two recordings (both with Stokowski). The opening ’Moderato’ banished any thoughts of sentimentality in its purposeful onward course – almost too acute in the climactic transition back to the main theme, though the improvisatory solo writing just before the coda was limpidly realised. Hough allowed himself a degree more expressive latitude in the ’Adagio’, though there was no lack of incisiveness in the scherzando episode, while string and wind contributions throughout the movement were the more telling for their lack of affectation. Nor was there any lack of pathos in the ’big tune’ of the Finale (rightly following on directly here), shaped by Hough with an emotional lift that made its restatement at the close a true culmination. Good to be able to hear this work purely as music and not in terms of a pre-existing emotional response.
As with the CBSO’s performance of Ives’s Second Symphony, the Fourth was preceded by a selection of hymns and religious songs – stylishly rendered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus – to be heard in the main work. No longer, however, are they used as thematic elements in an evolving discourse, but as melodic archetypes that permeate the texture and direct the broad harmonic flow of the music. Many of the sounds encountered are hinted at in the Prelude, its characterful take on “Watchman! Tell us of the Night” trenchant in the midst of luminous instrumentation. Intricacy shades into complexity in the ’Allegretto’ that follows – Ives’s dense interweaving of orchestral layers reaching an apogee of controlled anarchy. Ably assisted by Paul Hoskins, Sakari Oramo excelled in making sense of the music as sound, projecting what the composer called its “exciting, easy, and worldly progress through life” with dynamism and not a little humour.
If the remainder was not quite so successful, there was little doubting Oramo’s identification with the questing nature of Ives’s odyssey. The Fugue was briskly dispatched – not a problem as such, but contrasts in dynamic contours within the strings’ polyphony were often minimal and the harmonic dislocations, which offset the uniformity of the writing in its later stages, were not always evident. The mystery of the final ’Largo’, with its autonomous percussion continuum and benedictory choral ’halo’ towards the close, was powerfully realised; less so its transcendence, with the final bars drawing to a close rather than receding beyond consciousness – an effect life-changing when brought off.
It would be wrong to make too much of these qualifications. This was as confident and well-prepared a performance as even aficionados of this demanding work can have heard, and it is to be hoped that Oramo will revive it in a future season. For now, it provided an impressive conclusion to what has been a groundbreaking Ives symphony cycle in the UK – and quite likely anywhere!