A Tale of Two Universes

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Sun, 2016-05-15 00:16

There is no greater piano concerto than the Brahms Concerto No. 2. Except perhaps the Brahms Concerto No. 1.

At one time the conscientiously cerebral Stephen Hough favoured the No. 1. Then he came to prefer No. 2. For my money, there's not a lot between them except twenty-two years, with less explosiveness and greater serenity in the later work. Both are stellar exemplars of the greatest genre in music, the Romantic genre. Both combine the grandeur of a symphony, the passion of an opera, the tenderness of a love ballad, the torment of high tension and the rapture of repose. Both touch every emotion ever quickened by a beating heart. Both attain aching heights of sublimity.

After recording both back to back, Hough concluded:

For all the grandeur and excitement of the first concerto's youthful flare, the second's older vintage seemed wiser, more fascinatingly complex as I revisited and re-recorded both pieces last year. Its musical arguments seemed more nuanced, more open to exploration, more a search for common ground where, as in life, the sun can shine brightest ... and warmest.

Stephen is a gentle, conciliatory soul who converted to Catholicism as a youth after hearing monks chanting. Openly gay, he has held fast to his faith notwithstanding its teachings about homosexuality. He loves the line from scripture: "Cursed is the man who speaks loud in the morning." I suspect the greater sheer noise of No. 1, as much as any musical consideration, informs his preference for No. 2. In any event, the sun certainly shone brightly and warmly last Friday, as Hough teamed up with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by the estimable Gustavo Gimeno to perform the second concerto—immaculately—to a packed Michael Fowler Centre.

This was in marked contrast to the concert a week earlier called 'Aotearoa Plus'—a succession of cacophonous grotesqueries being showcased because they were perpetrated by New Zealand "composers." It was noteworthy that each atrocity was preceded by lengthy bloviation from the conductor (not Gimeno) assuring us that what we were about to hear was actually really very beautiful even though on its face it might seem hideously ugly. Two of these labours of hate were being premiered that night; if this be a decent world, they'll never be heard again. Few people seemed anxious to hear them at all—the Fowler Centre was less than a quarter full.

The incoherent awfulness of the abominations didn't deter some deeply silly and/or pretentious die-hards from standing up and shouting "Bravo!" when the ordeal was over. I wondered if they genuinely didn't observe that the emperor had no clothes, or derived sick, gleeful gratification from precisely that fact. Naturally I didn't join them. What was to applaud? We had just been doused in sewage set to notes.

In the space of a week the NZSO dragged us to Hell and then returned us to Heaven—wherein art, in Hough's words, "is a fountain quenching an inner, passionate thirst." The celestial realm is the natural habitat of the excellent ladies and gentlemen of our noble orchestra. I'd urge them to remain there.


What a great review!

Olivia's picture

And the Brahms 1 is an absolute reproach to anyone who claims that he only ever composed "wallpaper" music. I must familiarise myself more with the Brahms 2.

I'm so glad you mentioned Emperor's New Clothes regarding the NZ composers - they are just awful! If one has to explain that " what we were about to hear was actually really very beautiful even though on its face it might seem hideously ugly..." it sadly says it all.

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