Two ‘Cinderella’ pieces, but which deserves to wear the glass slipper?

As the audience’s applause reverberates around the wooden clad Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, Stephen Hough and the orchestra’s conductor for the evening, Hans Graf, return to the podium to take another bow. Graf playfully invites Hough to retake his seat at the piano for an encore and Hough, much to the delight of the audience obliges, announcing to the hall as a hush descends once again that now he has played a lesser known work of Dvořák’s he will now play one of the composer’s better known pieces. Hough plays the unmistakable opening bars of Dvořák’s Humoresque and an appreciative titter wriggles its way around the hall. Hough’s performance is sensitive, agile, light, charismatic, playful and technically flawless ­– everything a great performance by a great pianist should be. It’s a pity then that for Hough’s main performance last night with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra he performed Dvořák’s rarely presented and infamously imperfect Piano Concerto in G Minor (0p.33). 

I’m beginng this review by putting the proverbial cart before the horse because Hough is a pianist of exceptional talent and his well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most sought after soloists should be front of mind when reading my thoughts on a disappointing first half to last night’s concert. Similarly the Sydney Symphony deserve a disclaimer: they are a world-class ensemble and their place as one of Australia’s principal cultural ambassadors is something we should all be deeply proud of. However sometimes, despite the stage groaning under the weight of Stephen Hough and the SSO’s collective talent, it is impossible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. 

Stephen Hough

Written in 1876, apparently taking only a few weeks to complete, Dvořák’s Concerto has failed to find its way into regular favour with many. Indeed since it was premiered it has been criticised for being overly understated and awkwardly written with unreasonable technical demands which yield very few opportunities for a soloist to shine. Hough has described the work as “a concerto for ten thumbs” and while clearly he has a personal fondness for the piece I think it’s important to remember that one of the crimes of this concerto is how deceptively challenging it is. Like Houdini attempting to free himself from a straitjacket when nobody is watching: it’s an impressive feat, but do we care if we can’t see it? Much of the most finger-knottingly difficult elements of the soloist’s part are either buried in the middle of the piano texture or overwhelmed by the force of the orchestral accompaniment. There are of course moments which allow some of the creative brilliance we know Dvořák capable of to peek through the gloom: the muscular cadenza at the end of the first movement; the pleasingly unexpected harmonic quirks of the second movement; the Bohemian jig of the final movement’s charming theme, but too much of Hough’s considerable prowess was swallowed up by the technical quicksand of the piece.

Both pieces in the SSO’s program last night are considered ‘Cinderella’ works – pieces that are generally underrated and consequently have few outings. But while the Dvořák is more of an ugly sister than a Cinderella, Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony deserves to wear the glass slipper. Bruckner symphonies are sometimes described as an acquired taste, and there are some irritants that are common to Bruckner and are most definitely present in the Sixth Symphony.

Hans Graf (Photo: Bruce Bennett)

As if driving down a road that has a traffic light every 25 metres, Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony repeatedly builds momentum only to suddenly stop. Occasionally these abrupt changes in pace work magically, like a film cutting to black on a suspenseful cliff hanger, but particularly in the third movement, the effect is often frustrating and gives the impression that the Symphony has missing pieces. Bruckner symphonies in general are extremely long and the Sixth is no exception at just over an hour. This isn’t a criticism in itself, but because Bruckner was something of a compositional nerd (he took six years of counterpoint lessons via a correspondence course before he felt he had sufficiently mastered the art to apply it to his own music) he sometimes expects the listener to keep up with his tremendous musical intellectualism and retain fragments of material in their mind for huge durations. This means some of the punchlines of Bruckner’s highly accomplished works are hard to discern, such as the return of the opening motif of the Sixth Symphony’s first movement which ends the work, almost an hour after we first hear it.

Now I’ve got that off my chest I can finally heap some well-deserved praise on both the composer and the SSO. The first movement of this leviathan symphony was executed with breath-taking clarity. The serpentine harmony, brimming with one gorgeously unresolved cadence after another (clearly the influence of Wagner) is underpinned with a subtly ingenious orchestration, terracing moments of seismic orchestral power with writing that can almost be considered chamber music. This provided some wonderful moments for individuals within the orchestra to show their skills, particularly within the winds. Special mention should go the SSO’s horn section and its principal Robert Johnson for some robust and fearless playing in some of the symphony’s highly exposed moments, particularly the opening horn solo and during the third movement, which can easily be butchered by a poorly timed split note. In fact it would be unjust not to praise the orchestra’s entire brass section. The surging, almost elemental power of this piece, particularly the great orchestral tuttis in the opening movement, is built upon the bedrock of the brass section, whose performance did not disappoint last night. The whole orchestra’s commitment to the performance barely waivered for the full hour it took to perform this very demanding piece, and this is in no small part down to the precise yet expressive control of last night’s conductor, Hans Graf. 

I think it is important to note that Bruckner took three years to complete his Sixth Symphony, a work that he would never personally hear. Even the works premiere two years after Bruckner’s death was a shortened arrangement by Mahler. Bruckner’s original version, as was heard in last night’s concert, is a great technical feat of composition: a study in complex counterpoint and chromatic harmony. But it is more than just an academic exercise. It is a piece of extreme pathos and great beauty, of pain and joy on a scale very rarely achieved in music. I sincerely hope everyone who was at the Sydney Opera House last night felt that as poignantly as I did.