It took the better part of a century for Xaver Scharwenka's Piano Concerto No. 4 in F Minor (composed in 1908) to appear on a National Symphony Orchestra program, but when it finally did, last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, it received a justified warm welcome. Two guest artists were responsible for this belated debut: Osmo Vanska, who will become music director of the Minnesota Orchestra next season, and pianist Stephen Hough, who has, as his biographical note in the program says, "a particular interest in unusual works by pianist-composers of the late 19th century."
The people who gave it a standing ovation may wonder why such compelling music has been so neglected, but it is not hard to imagine the answer. True, nobody has been heard complaining loudly about our neglect of pianist-composer Scharwenka, but I suspect that the real reason we don't hear him more often is that most pianists find him too formidable: too much work and too many possibilities of going badly wrong.
It is a flamboyantly virtuosic work in a late romantic style that makes up in color, energy and breathtaking acrobatics what it may lack in introspective depth and subtlety -- though it has a lot of that in its tranquil second movement and its pensive, slow-moving third. It is a thorough showcase for pianists with extraordinary technique and expressive power. It was revived by Hough with a prize-winning recording after nearly a century of neglect. He played it as if he owned it, as in fact he does.
Vanska deftly coordinated the orchestra's contributions with the soloist's, and he explored a variety of orchestral colors in the rest of the program. The colors were mostly bold and primary in Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn, though they ranged through a broad spectrum. Vanska began the work rather slowly and understatedly, but built smoothly and convincingly to an exciting climax.
The colors were mostly soft pastels in Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess," which evoked some lovely woodwind playing, and they were highly varied but always vivid in Debussy's "La Mer," a sea that ranged from calm and sunny to brisk and stormy. Vanska's rapport with the orchestra was impressive throughout the program.