Kochanovsky makes impressive U.S. debut with NSO

Thu Mar 23, 2023 at 11:47 pm

Stanislav Kochanovsky led the National Symphony Orchestra in music of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Alexandra Murayeva

Russia looms large at the National Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this week. Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky, in a noteworthy U.S. debut, leads two mammoth pieces of Russian romanticism: Rachmaninoff’s daunting Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s devastating Sixth Symphony (“Pathétique”). The only non-Russian element heard Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was the piano soloist, Stephen Hough.

The British-born pianist last appeared with the NSO in 2014, playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Although he played another Rachmaninoff concerto with the NSO in 2012, none is as challenging as No. 3, a Herculean spectacle last undertaken with the NSO by Denis Kozhukhin in 2018. (Amid all he does in music and beyond, Hough has also written a memoir, Enough: Scenes from Childhood, which will be published next month.)

Not satisfied apparently with just the concerto hurdle to jump over, Hough opened his whirlwind week in Washington with a daredevil solo recital of music by Liszt, Scriabin, Debussy, Mompou, and his own striking Partita, presented Tuesday night by the Library of Congress at St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill.

As it turned out, the recital was the more polished affair. On his own, Hough’s idiosyncratic musical approach stood out less, with only himself to accommodate. There was no doubt of the steeliness of his technique, even in Rachmaninoff’s seemingly endless series of virtuosic demands. Yet in the blockbuster first movement, Hough and Kochanovsky often seemed at odds in terms of pacing, and the NSO sometimes overwhelmed him with sound.

Stephen Hough performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Thursday night with the NSO. Photo: Jati Lindsay

The high point, not surprisingly, was the first movement’s cadenza. As he has done in his recording of the work, Hough played the so-called standard cadenza, slightly less demanding than the more difficult one the composer originally wrote, which he also left in the score as an alternative, marked “ossia.” As Hough sped up toward the end, taking considerable risks in tempo acceleration, a few cracks appeared in his otherwise impenetrable technique, leading into the lovely section with woodwind solos.

Similar disjunction occurred in small ways in the slow movement, marked by plangent oboe solos and burnished sound from the violins and violas. At some moments when Hough should have been accompanying principal lines in the orchestra, he often rushed ahead, but his whirring runs, in the crazy section with repeated notes, had an astounding filigree lightness.

Hough’s pianism was most solid in the Finale, a barnburner of a movement in which he continued to press onward, often seemingly in slight disagreement with Kochanovsky, who had to realign the orchestra with his soloist’s pacing more than once. Rounding out a week of romantic excess, Hough chose a calming encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major (Op. 9, no. 2). Like some parts of his recital earlier in the week, Hough’s astounding abilities came up short in just one area, a truly melting legato touch.

Although Hough, a favorite with local audiences, seemed to be the main draw for the sold-out crowds at the Kennedy Center, Stanislav Kochanovsky’s conducting proved the evening’s real payoff. From the mournful slow introduction to the Sixth Symphony’s first movement, Kochanovsky’s confident gestures and careful balancing of sound put the orchestra at ease. The NSO musicians sounded exceptionally unified and accomplished some surprisingly fresh  results in this familiar work.

Kochanovsky took his time building up the opening section, supporting the wistful bassoon solos and viola melody over the rumbling basses. When the faster section of the movement finally exploded, the brass gave the climaxes of the piece a dark, forbidding edge, with some of their melodic material drawn from the Russian Orthodox funeral liturgy.

The high point of the symphony was the second movement, which from the opening cello melody was a picture of elegance. The irregular meter, 5/4, felt not at all lopsided, as it is often conducted, but even more refined somehow. The trio of crescendo swells over pedal points surged in beautifully shaped phrases.

Kochanovsky made up some of the time he had lavished on the first movement in a lithe, rapid pacing of the third movement. Each climax of the heroic theme triumphed louder and louder, leading to the inevitable burst of applause at its big finish, in spite of Kochanovsky diving right into the Finale. Here the strings yearned and pined with lush poignancy, as the piece churned to its sad, muted conclusion. Now, finally, the conductor was able to hold the audience silent for a long, welcome moment of contemplation.

The program will be repeated 11:30 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. kennedy-center.org

4 Responses to “Kochanovsky makes impressive U.S. debut with NSO”

  1. Posted Mar 24, 2023 at 3:03 pm by Raymond Brokamp

    I thoroughly enjoyed the concert despite the sometimes obvious disagreement on tempi between soloist and orchestra but was very disappointed and mystified at the use of the Yamaha which, I believe, was the reason for the initial covering of the piano in the first movement and the overall lack of a singing line throughout the concert. From the initial octave passage running through the slow movement and ending with the Nocturne, the piano’s clunky and muddled sound was exasperating.

  2. Posted Mar 24, 2023 at 5:15 pm by france graage

    I have spent my life in music, surrounded by great artists: so I want to express that Stephen Hough’s performance last night of Rachmaninoff concerto #3 was extraordinary and put me on a higher plane. He is a prince.

    Such playing is rare and will stay with me

    France Graage

  3. Posted Mar 26, 2023 at 1:11 pm by Mark Adams

    Thanks for your interesting, detailed review of Mr Hough’s Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto with Mr Kochanovsky & the NSO; and the Kochanovsky / NSO Tchaikovsky 6th symphony. I attended the Saturday evening performance & enjoyed it immensely.

    Thought you might know: What was the quiet encore Mr Hough played on Saturday night? I didn’t recognize it.

  4. Posted Mar 28, 2023 at 10:26 am by Steve

    I think with the elimination of paper programs, more and more folk will applaud at the end of loud and fast movements like in the 6th symphony, thinking they are the finales of works. Perhaps a half page program sheet, with basic program on one side and scan code on the back, may prevent ill-timed applause.

    I saw the program on Saturday, interesting performance, though it seemed the NSO was not very fond of the conductor, judging by applause at end of second half, with very few bows tapping.

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