Stephen Hough performs Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4 with associate conductor Jerry Hou and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: ASO)

Atlanta Symphony hits the high notes with Hou and Hough in virtual-only concert

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
“Stephen Hough Plays Saint-Saëns”
(Virtual Only Concert)
Recorded at Atlanta Symphony Hall
Released February 4, 2022
(Available through August 31, 2022)
Jerry Hou, conductor; Stephen Hough, piano
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: Overture to Idomeneo
Charles-Camille SAINT-SAËNS: Piano Concerto No. 4
Toru TAKEMITSU: Requiem
Franz SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 5

Giorgio Koukl | 18 FEB 2021

This “virtual-only“ concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented some less-played compositions like Takemitsu’s Requiem for a string orchestra and the fourth piano concerto of the prolific French composer Saint-Saëns, with well-known classical pieces like Mozart’s Idomeneo Overture and the fifth symphony by Schubert. This skillful mixture was a guarantee for a successful concert.

ASO associate conductor Jerry Hou opened the concert with the short Overture to Idomeneo, KV. 366.

Mozart composed Idomeneo in 1780-81 on a commission from the Bavarian court in Munich. It was his first possibility to stage a full-scale dramatic composition in the reformed tradition of Christoph Willibald Gluck that included a substantial role for chorus and ballet. Today with its five minutes only, it is extensively used as a classical and very effective opener for a concert. The ASO, under the direction of Mr. Hou, delivered a well-balanced and convincing rendering.

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The five piano concertos of Saint-Saëns are a special love in the life of the British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough. He won a Gramophone Record of the year award in 2001, and so the expectation was quite high

Pianist Stephen Hough (credit: Sim Canetty Clarke)

Pianist Stephen Hough
(credit: Sim Canetty Clarke)

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (October 9, 1835 – December 16, 1921) was a French composer, organist, conductor, and pianist of the Romantic era. The Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44, was composed in 1875. Among his five piano concertos, it is the most popular. It was premiered on October 31, 1875, at the Théâtre du Châtelet of Paris, with the composer as the soloist. The concerto is dedicated to Anton Door. With its two movements only (“Allegro moderato-Andante“ and “Allegro vivace– Andante – Allegro“), it is usually under thirty minutes of duration.

It is not music of outstanding deepness or describing great human values. It is what the composer meant it to be: pure entertainment and joyous virtuosity for the pianist. And this is precisely what Mr. Hough delivered. His piano technique is astonishing, his way of playing the double octaves breathtaking, and his total control of the keyboard noteworthy. And yet maybe some more lyricism or elegance in shaping the phrases would add even more charm to his playing.

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was one of the most significant Japanese composers. His particular way of treating silence, profoundly rooted in the Zen tradition, is present throughout his entire compositional output but is extremely significant in one of his first works: the Requiem for string orchestra (1957). There are many legends linked to this particular work, which was much appreciated by Igor Stravinsky and which is today the most played composition of Takemitsu.

One of them is that the composer, seriously ill, has written it for himself, proceeding with painful slowness, sometimes composing no more than one bar per day only.

ASO assocuate conductor Jerry Hou. (credit: ASO)

ASO assocuate conductor Jerry Hou. (credit: ASO)

The rendering by the ASO under the direction of Jerry Hou was moving, lyrical, and exceptionally well balanced in terms of dynamic choices — one of the highlights of the program.

Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B♭ major, D.485, was written mainly in September 1816 and completed on October 3, 1816. Schubert finished it six months after the completion of his previous symphony. In this period of his life, Schubert was heavily influenced by Mozart. This influence is clearly audible in all four movements (“Allegro,“ Andante,“ “Minuetto,“ and “Allegro vivace“).

The choice to finish the ASO program with this music was a very good one. An assured public pleaser, it was played with a sort of inner joy, clearly visible even in the conductor’s body language and the members of the orchestra.

This music is not easy to play, and a lot of concentration is necessary to integrate perfectly into the characteristic major-minor cascades of the first movement.

In this sense, the rendering was a spectacular one. The slow “Andante“ movement with its fragile melodies was played with extreme care and produced a bittersweet effect that not many orchestras can achieve.

Giorgio Koukl (photo: Chiara Solari)

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording a second volume of the complete solo piano music of Polish composer Alfons Szczerbinski.
(photo: Chiara Solari)