Harrods International Piano Series 2000-1 – Steven Hough

Brahms transcribed Busoni
Chorale Preludes for organ Op.122
Herzlich Tut Mich Erfreuen (No.4)
Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen (No.10)
Es ist ein Ros’ Entsprungen (No.8)

Sonata No.3 in F minor Op.5
Chopin transcribed Liszt
Three songs (from Op.74)
The Wish, Spring, My Joys
The Four Scherzos
in B minor Op.20
in B flat minor Op.31
No.3 in C sharp minor Op.39
No.4 in E Op.54

Stephen Hough

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 4 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Stephen Hough is an Apollonian pianist. He brings an order and even-temper to everything he plays however agitated the music, however complex its structure, however technically demanding, and however varied the emotions. He is a pianist who believes in letting the music speak for itself.

This overriding characteristic was already evident in Busoni’s transcriptions of Brahms’s organ chorale preludes. The clarity of Hough’s silvery pianissimo touch and the immaculate steadiness of the bass line enabled him either to imitate the organ (as in Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen) or emphasise the success of the translation into piano textures (as with the intermezzo-like Es ist ein Ros’ Entsprungen).

How familiar are Brahms’s later, lyrical piano ’miniatures’, whereas his early sonatas, with their aspirations and sense of exploration, are less immediately attractive. Hough made a convincing case for the Third Sonata as a masterwork – with a particularly rapt rendition of the long Andante espressivo (notably in its central episodes, an evocation of a dream-like state), in the fourth movement (Intermezzo), and evinced an admirable control and direction over the unwieldy outer movements. Hough couldn’t project completely the whole sonata as a mature creation, but he played throughout with impressive conviction.

Stephen Hough’s familiarity with nineteenth-century virtuoso repertoire, and his exploration of its little-known corners, was apparent from his rendition of Liszt’s transcriptions of Chopin’s songs, which brought out both the simple passion of the originals (especially in the nostalgic melody of ’Spring’) and the extravagant decorations of the arrangements. Hough never plays showy figurations with any indulgence – it is, no doubt, the only solution to music that is largely constructed from ornamental devices. Very occasionally, in music of greater emotional complexity, Hough can appear too detached.

If there is an inclination to remember Chopin more as a transcendental moment in the history of piano music than as one of a generation of composers for whom display and dazzle were pre-requisites of composition, Hough, in his playing of Chopin’s Four Scherzos, never let us forget the kinship between Chopin and salon music. At the same time he gave proper consideration to their emotional commitment and depth: “Chopin is either hot or cool, but never warm,” says Mitsuko Uchida. It is a perfect description of Hough’s playing: at times aloof, at times intense, but always challenging.

Hough gave us a dazzlingly fleet, light performance of No.1, in which he (almost) always got away with his headlong pace. The poise and balance of No.4 received an interpretation of almost glacial detachment, and was therefore all the more striking. No.3 received a wonderful, hushed start, and, again, very fast tempi – though with near-flawless delivery – to remind us how much these are showpieces. Only in this scherzo did this purist-virtuoso approach, with its velocity and coolness, seem less than completely successful.

Hough played the Scherzos in the order reviewed. The recital concluded with a particularly inspired performance of No.2 – the trio of which was played with a daring intensity, slowness of tempo, and concentration: the left-hand counter-melody in the waltz-like second subject danced with more lightness and poise than I have previously heard.

(Colin Anderson, Music Editor, writes … This may be an appropriate moment to mention the three encores Stephen Hough played. First came Bantock’s Song of the Seals as arranged by Hough – lovely piece – then Hough’s bravura re-working of Richard Rodgers’s evergreen Carousel Waltz, and, finally, MacDowell’s To a Wild Rose. In the hope that Radio 3 also taped these for broadcast this Thursday: don’t miss!)

Stephen Hough is getting better and better. If, as I believe, there is still even better to come, that with time his distinctive style will reach even more deeply into the soul of each piece, then this is no detraction from a recital of the very first rank.

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