Hough returns to Utah Symphony with triumphant Rachmaninoff

Sat Nov 12, 2022 at 10:32 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Stephen Hough performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Utah Symphony Friday night at Abravanel Hall.

Just in time for the onset of winter temperatures in Salt Lake City, the Utah Symphony delivered a hearty and filling musical meal Friday night at Abravanel Hall.

The main course was Stephen Hough’s breathtaking performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which demonstrated, once again, that the British pianist is one of the smartest and most equipped soloists currently working. 

The technical demands of “Rach 3” are legendary, and the recently knighted Hough was more than equal to them. He powered through each blizzard of notes with amazing accuracy—his forceful announcement of the beginning of the last movement was a particularly thrilling moment—while making sure he had enough energy in reserve to bring everything home in one final, stunning outburst.

The mark of an artist, of course, is more than showing off how fast and loud one can play. Hough accordingly distinguished himself with his eloquent phrasing of the first movement’s main theme, one of the most recognizable melodies in the canon and one the composer described as having written itself. The yearning and melancholy ran almost unbearably deep with each successive appearance.

Under Bulgarian-born conductor Rossen Milanov—stepping in for music director Thierry Fischer, who has been sidelined by an orthopedic injury—the orchestra kept pace with Hough’s taut tempos while maintaining a satisfying musical line. The back-and-forth in the second movement, with its big, comforting blanket of strings, was especially engaging.

The crowd leapt up and cheered at the concerto’s conclusion, but couldn’t coax an encore out of Hough. No one could begrudge him—he had already given more than enough.

The first half of the program was devoted to music from Wagner operas. It was mildly disappointing to learn that Fischer’s injury had necessitated the postponement of Unsuk Chin’s Chóros Chordón, but the work Milanov programmed in its place, the Overture to Tannhäuser turned out to be a clever substitute. The somber opening statement of the Pilgrims’ Chorus carried an unexpected poignancy, foreshadowing the triumphant final bars.

A more hollow triumph concluded the evening’s other work, a suite by Philippe Jordan of music from Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

Milanov brought a great sense of theater to Jordan’s confection, titled, “Prelude, Interlude and Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.” He established the scene by carefully building a foundation of gleaming brass out of which rose great walls of strings and, almost imperceptibly at first, graceful woodwinds. A squadron of horns and Wagner tubas, an impressive lineup of four harps, and a pulse-quickening passage featuring a lineup of anvils added to the excitement.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. utahsymphony.org.

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