March 2, 2019
The San Antonio Symphony opened its six-concert armchair tour of Europe on March 1 in the Tobin Center with an agreeable glance at England during the high (but turning) tide of the British Empire. A welcome side trip visited the Germany of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B-flat. The esteemed Stephen Hough was the concerto soloist, and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducted.
Chief among the program’s English works was Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme – the “Enigma” Variations – from 1899. The other composers represented were Ralph Vaughan Williams (overture to The Wasps, 1909), William Walton (Crown Imperial, 1937), and Gustav Holst (the a cappella choral song “I Love My Love,” 1918, beautifully sung offstage by the Mastersingers). The concert closed with audience sing-alongs to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (“Land of Hope and Glory”) from 1901 and Thomas Arne’s 1740 anthem “Rule, Brittania!”
The 20th-century composers in this collection are interesting for being almost but not quite A-listers. All produced enjyable works with a secure place in the repertoire, but none advanced the language of music as did their rough contemporaries Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich of Russia; or the Austrians Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern; or the Hungarian Bartok; or the American Ives; or the German Strauss; or the Dane Nielsen; or, a bit later, the Argentinian Ginastera and the Mexican Chavez.
The English composers in this period looked backward, for the most part. They were engaged in composing the sound track for empire. Their music exuded puffed-up confidence, power, and moral certainty. English music would not break out of its conservative self-satisfaction until 1945, with the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes – and the beginning of decolonisation.
The performances of the English works were nicely put together. The earnest feeling and wit of the Wasps overture came across nicely, as did the high-stepping grandeur of Crown Imperial. The “Enigma” Variations got an especially fine traversal. Mr. Lang-Lessing gave the statement of the theme beautiful shape and a feeling of motion within the slow tempo. The fourth variation was robust and crisp; the rollicking seventh was propelled brilliantly by principal timpani Peter Flamm; the eleventh was a madcap fury. The cellos and violas poured out gorgeous sound in the lyrical twelfth, which also featured superb solo work by principal cello Kenneth Freudigman. The ninth, the famous ”Nimrod” – indispensible for British state funerals and other solemn events – got a particularly creamy sound from the strings and glorious contributions from the brass.
One would be hard pressed to name a pianist who has been more widely respected by his colleagues than Stephen Hough. Born in northwest England but how an Australian citizen, he was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1914 – an honor that does not, however, qualify him under the arcane rules of Brit protocol to be identified as “Sir Stephen Hough,” as Mr. Lang-Lessing did in remarks from the stage.
Beethoven’s Concerto in B-flat – most likely the first he composed but the second to be performed – breathes a Mozartean air. Mr. Hough got the style exactly right with clarity, restraint, and precise diction – matched by Mr. Lang-Lessing and the orchestra in the introductory ritornello. He produced an elegant sound, not huge but equipped with a ping that allowed it to carry over the orchesra. The highly dramatic and impetuous cadenza n the opening allegro seemed to be Hough’s own. The intensity of thought Mr. Hough applies to phrasing was especially evident in the adagio, and he closed this movement with an extraordinary hushed sound and a searching quality that made the finale seem all the more high-spirited.
The pianist’s encore, reflecting the concert’s British concentration, was a piano solo version of Eric Coates’ “By the Sleepy Lagoon,” a 1930 piece that the American trumpeter and band leader Harry James would transform into smooch music in the early 1940s.