This week the Grand Teton Music Festival hosts not one but two pianists many count among the world’s finest.

Stephen Hough — a MacArthur Foundation fellow, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, award-winning recording artist, composer, professor and, if that’s not enough, prolific writer — will perform a solo recital tonight, playing scores ranging from Bach to Busoni and a composition of his own.

And on Friday and Saturday, Yefim Bronfman will join the Festival Orchestra and Maestro Donald Runnicles for Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” (1909) , a cornerstone of the Romantic repertoire upon which he has built his career.

For many classical concert series, having one or the other would be a coup, but for the Tetons’ festival it’s business as usual. Both have performed here often enough to be considered old friends of the organization. Bronfman’s last visit was two years ago, when he played Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 2,” and Hough last appeared in 2012 with guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth.

On this visit Hough will play a handful of pieces that have “as part of their identity or inspiration” the theme of death. Sort of.

“I never really plan a program with [a theme] as absolutely central,” Hough said from London last week. The music of this recital just “happened to tie together.”

Hough wanted to record Chopin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2,” which includes a movement that has come to be instantly associated with the funereal. “I had written my fourth sonata” — which he had subtitled “Vida Breve” or “life is short” — “and I thought, ‘Maybe I can find a theme here.’”

That doesn’t mean the audience will walk away feeling depressed. For instance, the opening piece, Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of J.S. Bach’s “Chaconne,” from his “Partita No. 2 for Violin,” was written in memory of his first wife.

“So it’s not about death but about celebrating a woman he loved,” Hough said. “And my piece is not really about death, either. It’s just that life is short and we should live every minute of it and relish every minute.”

Busoni’s gentle, swaying, atmospheric “Berceuse Elegiaque,” a cradle song in which the cradle is Busoni’s mother’s coffin, and two works by Franz Liszt close the evening. Liszt’s “Funerailles” is a slow but powerfully virtuosic piece that makes you “feel like you’ve been to the funeral of everyone who’s ever lived,” Hough said, calling his “Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” “a famous showman’s piece.”

Speaking of a showman’s piece, Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” is considered one of the most technically demanding works for piano written. Even Josef Hoffmann, the friend to whom Rachmaninoff dedicated the piece, chose not to perform it in the composer’s lifetime. Rachmaninoff wrote it for his first visit to the United States and premiered it in New York City. Likewise, Bronfman learned the concerto as a youngster and performed it at his U.S. debut in 1987, with Leonard Bernstein conducting at Carnegie Hall and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“That was a special performance for me,” he said.

Bronfman has dropped it from his repertoire and picked it up again several times. This weekend’s performances will be the first time he has returned to it in 10 years.

“It’s a lot of notes,” he agreed, “but I learned it when I was very young, so it’s in my system somehow.”

As a 10-year-old, he said, one sees life and the world and everything a certain way. But as one grows and matures and gains experience “you want to do things different.” In the case of Rachmaninoff’s Third, he said, he has found a lot of new things to explore. This time around, he said, he sees more darkness, more of the composer’s inner voice, and he finds himself highlighting the polyphonics of the score.

“Maybe sometimes I’m simplifying things that seems a little more straightforward to me,” he said, “and some things seem more complex.”

Bronfman called the Third “very sincere and honest.

“It’s not only fireworks and great virtuosity, but it’s a very personal statement of his native Russia and his roots. Those roots come to the fore in this music more than any other piece.”

Also on the weekend orchestral program are Sibelius’ “En Saga Op. 9,” a tone poem that evokes Old Norse folk and fairy tales, and Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.”

For tickets and information about Hough’s or Bronfman’s appearances, or the rest of the Music Festival’s 2019 season, call 733-1128 or visit GTMF.org. 

Contact Richard Anderson at 732-7062 or rich@jhnewsandguide.com.

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