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Rachmaninoff speaks to Stephen Hough

Special to The Times

Pianist Stephen Hough has become a resource for CD aficionados because of the reams of out-of-the-way repertoire he has been setting down for the hardy Hyperion label. If you’re curious about the piano concertos of Xaver Scharwenka, Emil von Sauer or Lowell Liebermann, Hough has some records for you. If you’ve always wanted to explore the solo piano music of Federico Mompou or York Bowen, Hough can oblige.

There were no flights of esoterica from Hough on Thursday night in the Hollywood Bowl, where despite a few recent indications to the contrary, standard repertoire still rules. But Hough does the standards too; he put out a set of the complete Rachmaninoff works for piano and orchestra with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony in 2004 that has drawn considerable acclaim.

From the latter collection, as part of an all-Russian evening, Hough played Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which is probably the best work of them all -- certainly the most ingeniously constructed one. Hough found the mischief in the early going, the scherzando sections flew by with a well-regulated, feather-soft technique, and in the lyrical variations, he could relax and take in the view.

Hough has written that he has listened hard to Rachmaninoff’s own recordings -- and you could sense the influence of the composer’s nearly-unstoppable, 1934-vintage Rhapsody discs in the lightness of Hough’s touch and his comfortable feeling for rubato. Los Angeles Philharmonic conducting fellow Joana Carneiro kept things in good shape at slightly fast tempos, and both the Philharmonic and the sound engineers were on their respective games.

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The rest of the evening, alas, was strictly routine. Carneiro had nothing really intriguing to say about Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, pushing it through straightforwardly with little momentum or ardor, occasionally obscuring the main lines of the first movement with detail, striking fire only in patches of the finale.

Mussorgsky’s lovely Prelude to the opera “Khovanshchina” (in the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration) made an innocuous impression as a curtain-raiser in this rendition.


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