Hough and Imani Winds a sheer delight in Mostly Mozart’s A Little Night Music

Stephen Hough, piano
Imani Winds
Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
August 10, 2018

Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque
Mozart: Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, K452
Poulenc: Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, FP 100

Encore:
Poulenc, arr. Hough: No. 1 from Trois mouvements perpétuels, FP 14

Right on the heels of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s concluding performance of the summer season, one had a late-night opportunity to see pianist Stephen Hough in a much more intimate setting: a remarkable chamber music performance with the Imani Winds at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, part of the festival’s A Little Night Music series. Hough opened the program sans winds in a luminous, shimmering account of Debussy’s Clair de lune. Debussy is a composer to whom Hough has recently turned ample attention, releasing a very fine all-Debussy album at the beginning of the year (although one would need to look to his French Album for a recording of the present work). The acoustics in the Penthouse were a bit dry, but the striking setting of flickering candlelight and the Manhattan skyline made it a small price to pay, an atmospheric complement to the rapturous beauty of Hough’s pianism.

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Stephen Hough, photo credit Sim Canetty-Clarke

The remainder of the brief program was devoted to sterling examples of chamber works for piano and winds by Mozart and Poulenc. Hough noted that these disparate composers had little in common musically save for their wry sense of humor. A stately introduction opened the former’s Quintet (K452), giving way to a jaunty primary theme which beautifully melded Hough’s elegant keyboard playing with the graceful winds – a harmonious blend of diverse timbres. The Larghetto was sweet and dulcet in its delicate trills and ornaments, and an almost sinfully sumptuous melody was passed through the winds. The finale was a jovial affair yet in no apparent hurry with a lyrical subject at its core.

Poulenc’s Sextet, dating from the early 1930s, added the flute to the forces onstage. The commanding opening brought to life a scene bustling with coloristic contrasts and manic syncopations evoking American ragtime. A searching monologue in the bassoon (Monica Ellis) and impressionistic writing from the piano offered some introspection, only for the movement to conclude in a dramatic flourish. An underlying melancholy – perhaps another parallel to Mozart – was palpable in the central divertissement with some especially fine playing from oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. More frenzied contrast was manifest in due course, with a rambunctious and perky finale leading inexorably to a bright and brilliant end.

A lone encore continued the ensemble’s exploration of Poulenc, namely Hough’s own transcription for the sextet of the first of the Mouvements perpétuels (originally a work for solo piano). Hough was certainly apt in remarking it had “not a bit of angst”, and the seamless performance closed the evening in pure delight.

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Imani Winds, photo credit Matt Murphy
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Piquant Poulenc and rapturous Rachmaninov from Denève and the Clevelanders

Cleveland Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 25, 2018

Poulenc: Concert champêtre, FP 49
 Encore:
 Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in D major, Kk. 96
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Stéphane Denève, poised to succeed David Robertson as music director of the St. Louis Symphony, is a conductor with a magnificent ear for orchestral color. This paid its dividends during his lustrous Cleveland Orchestra program, comprised of a pair of works which could hardly have been more disparate despite being composed only two decades apart: Poulenc’s rarely heard Concert champêtre, and Rachmaninov’s evergreen Second Symphony.

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Stéphane Denève, photo credit Nobuo Mikawa

The Concert champêtre is an odd yet enjoyable concoction, with last weekend’s performances counting as The Cleveland Orchestra’s first traversal of the work. It’s at its core something of an anachronism with the full resources of the modern orchestra supporting a harpsichord soloist, the latter serving as a platform for the Cleveland Orchestra debut of Jory Vinikour. Given the harpsichord’s limited projection, some amplification was necessary, although matters were still occasionally muted, especially when pitted against the sheen of the very fine brass section. Poulenc wrote the work in the late 1920s for Wanda Landowska, perhaps the first modern-day advocate of the harpsichord. It opened with piquant sonorities, bright and sweetly dissonant, and very much of a Stravinskyian neoclassicism. More playful material ensued, which Vinikour gave with high spirits and abandon.

A melancholic sicilienne served as the central slow movement, with the harpsichord most often relegated to an arpeggiated accompaniment, save for a striking passage of rumbling trills in its bass register. The finale opened with a passage for the soloist, the concerto’s most patent Baroque pastiche, sounding as if it was a page out of Scarlatti. A nostalgic evocation of the opening movement was later heard, and in spite of the work’s outward brilliance, it took a much darker turn at the very end. For his encore, Vinikour appropriately selected a Scarlatti sonata (Kk. 96 in D major) – a virtuosic affair, replete with the requisite hand-crossings. 

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Jory Vinikour, photo credit Nuccio di Nuzzo

There’s little to say in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony that hasn’t already been said many times, yet Denève’s reading more than justified a further hearing. Somber cellos initiated the work, soon to be answered by the reassuring warmth of the horns and a lush melody in the violins. The texture built to heart-wrenching swells with conductor and orchestra seemingly in no hurry, savoring the moment while nonetheless skirting indulgence. Powerhouse climaxes were scaled in the development, an extensive exercise in large-scale architecture, with Denève (fortunately) electing for the uncut text.

The Allegro molto was marked by a mercurial vigor and blazing kinetic energy, in due course overturned by an intensely lyrical theme (which, incidentally, I can no longer dissociate from the film Birdman). I’ve long been looking forward to the opportunity to hear newly-appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf tackle the extended solo in the heavenly Adagio, and to say he didn’t disappoint would be a colossal understatement. The orchestra was in fine form in the movement’s outpourings of sumptuous beauty with the high-reaching solos of concertmaster Peter Otto also of note, and the swashbuckling finale brought the work to an enormously satisfying close.