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Dausgaard and Hough Thrill in Thunderous Triptych

Jones Hall
11/16/2012 -  and November 17, 18*, 2012
Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture No. 3 to "Leonore," Op. 72b
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable," Op. 29

Stephen Hough (piano)
Houston Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor)

T. Dausgaard (© Morten Abrahamsen)

Thomas Dausgaard comes to Houston regularly as a guest, always bringing bold, imaginative programs that communicate wonderfully with the Jones Hall audience. He has a wonderful sense of programming, combining the familiar and unfamiliar in thoughtful ways with a mind to always give us a sense of adventure. His most recent visit is another unqualified success, bolstered by the electrifying performance by pianist Stephen Hough, and one hopes that Dausgaard is on the shortlist of conductors to ascend the podium as music director of this fine orchestra.

The three pieces programmed are all overtly dramatic and even verge into bombast. Beethoven's third overture to Leonore contains as much fire and passion as any of his symphonies, and is a thrilling ride for a well-tuned orchestra. Dausgaard played up all aspects of the score, doing justice to its encapsulation of a full-blown operatic plot. The opening descent was deliberately paced and followed by a hushed, urgent first theme at the Allegro. The entire reading was agile and muscular, with utmost rhythmic precision in tuttis and emphasis of Beethoven's dynamic and harmonic surprises. The famous flute solo at the false recapitulation floated effortlessly above its bassoon counterpart, clearly excited by the excellently placed trumpet fanfares that preceded it. The coda's thrilling accumulation of players in the orchestra came across excellently, and it was clear that Dausgaard was going to yet again delight the audience with his attention to detail and the excellent playing he is able to draw from this orchestra.

S. Hough (© Grant Hiroshima)

What was a superb surprise was the evening's guest soloist, Stephen Hough. His recorded career features many highlights, including imaginative forays into unfamiliar repertoire and individual interpretations of warhorses. This was my first encounter with him live and, for some reason, his charisma was far more impressive in this performance that I've ever noticed it on recording. Hough outdid all recent guest pianists in drawing a huge range of colors from the instrument, and matched the agility and precision that Dausgaard continued to bring to Liszt's inventive concerto. The opening cadenzas were arresting, with Hough producing mammoth columns of sound that rivaled the intensity of the orchestral commentary. Later, the soft shimmering trills accompanying the woodwind solos prior to the entry of the triangle were like fairy-music, and the fleeting, soft figures throughout the ensuing dialogue could not have been more delightful.The most memorable moment of the evening's first half was easily Hough's maniacal trills towards the conclusion of the piece, but this would not have made as huge an impact if it wasn't the inevitable summit of his entire performance. After the brilliant barnstorming, Hough offered aural balm with one of his signature encores, his own elegant transcription of Massenet's haunting "Crépuscule."

Dausgaard returned to the helm after the pause to lead the orchestra in the powerful Fourth Symphony of his fellow Dane, Carl Nielsen. The work's hurtling opening bars set the tone for a bold reading, with the brass reveling in their snapped grace-notes and strings darting in and out of the texture with their scurrying figures. The extreme contrast that follows, where solo cello ruminates in the depths while chattering woodwind duos carry on echos of the tumultuous opening, was appropriately conveyed. Nielsen's range of colors and combinations provided excellent opportunities for solo and small ensemble work from the orchestra, notably the clarinet-led lyrical theme in the first movement that passes through larger and larger combinations of instruments to the first of many typically "glorioso" climaxes. Dausgaard presided excellently over the many changes of tempo in the first movement, and the orchestra turned on a dime. The woodwind chorale of the second movement, gentle and pastorale, was finely crafted, while the bold third movement, with its austere melody accompanied by the off-kilter, exaggerated clockwork of pizzicato strings and timpani, touchingly dissolved into a well-blended texture of solo strings. The wind intrusions towards the end of the movement, aptly interruptive, herald the immense battle that takes place in the finale. It was a bit cheeky for Dausgaard to have the second timpanist "emerge" out of the audience, a theatrical trick that perhaps served to soften the menacing implications of explosive percussion barrages in a symphony written shortly after World War I. Impressively, the two timpanists, spaced as far apart as possible on stage, engaged in their rhythmic exchanges with precision not even heard in most recordings; the exactitude of the rhythmic canon made the moment all the more thrilling.

This season has already had many highs, but this concert outdid them all. The imaginative programming and engaging musical personalities on the podium and piano bench brought out extraordinary playing from the orchestra, who reciprocated with warm applause for both Hough and Dausgaard.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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