Pianist Stephen Hough did a steady CD and autograph business at intermission Thursday noon at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. And for good reason. Hough and the Minnesota Orchestra had just dispatched Tchaikovsky's Concert Fantasia with stunning virtuosity, vigorously elevating a piece that languishes in symphonic obscurity. (Indeed, neither the orchestra nor music director Osmo Vänskä had performed it before Thursday.)

Hough has said he feels the Fantasia is "unjustly neglected," and one gets his point. This is a prodigious piece of music that shows off Hough's fierce strength, his disciplined articulation, delicate clarity, dexterity and passion. Under Vänskä's propulsive direction, the orchestra enters into a dialogue with Hough as they eagerly play off each other -- attacking with urgent conviction and then slipping aside. Hough and cellist Anthony Ross share a lovely moment in which Tchaikovsky proposes an aching emotion.

Even within the brilliant performances, though, we begin to understand why the Fantasia generally is preceded by the modifying sobriquet of "rarely performed." It feels like a piece of something larger -- which of course it is.

Tchaikovsky salvaged it from the shards of his symphonic attempt of 1884. The overall journey -- the destination -- of the piece seems uncertain. One senses that Tchaikovsky knew he had something here, but could not seal the deal. Still, Hough, Vänskä and the orchestra give us every reason to appreciate the effort.

Hough and the orchestra are recording the Concert Fantasia this weekend and the more familiar Piano Concerto No. 1 next week to complete a four-part live-concert set of Tchaikovsky's piano-and-orchestra works.

The orchestra has coined its 107th season opener a Russian Spectacular. In addition to the Fantasia, Vänskä chose selections from Tchaikovsky's ballet score for "Sleeping Beauty" and Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kijé Suite."

Tchaikovsky's ballet scores ("Swan Lake," "Nutcracker") fare much better than his symphonies.

"Sleeping Beauty" brims with brawny romanticism, countered by sweet simplicities. On occasion, the dancers in our head were huffing to keep up with the tempo, but more often than not the music breathes with expression.

The Prokofiev, with its light lyricism and whimsy, is a perfect table setter for the concert.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299


WHAT: Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. With pianist Stephen Hough.

WHEN: 8 p.m. today-Sat.

WHERE: Orchestra Hall, 11th St. and Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis.

TICKETS: $22-$84. 612-371-5656 or www.minne sotaorchestra.com.