Stephen Hough at Barbican Hall

Two Nocturnes, Op.27 – No.1 in C sharp minor; No.2 in D flat
Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.5
Stephen Hough
Piano Sonata No.2, notturno luminoso [London premiere]
Carnaval, Op.9

Stephen Hough (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 January, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaStephen Hough opened his recital with seductive readings of Chopin Nocturnes, transporting, pulsing with quiet emotions and suggestive of delicate fragrances. Hough then took on the heroics of Brahms’s F minor Piano Sonata. Although it was a shame to lose the exposition repeat, somewhat diminishing the work’s scale and causing an imbalance between the first two movements, there were many thrills and beauties throughout, Hough revealing the deepest sentiment in the most intimate way in the extended Andante espressivo (if only to have the rapt mood ruined by clapping!). Hough also searched the fourth-movement ‘Rückblick’ for all its remembrances. In the finale, he reminded that Brahms was but 20 years old, the pianist unreservedly bringing out the impetus, tender romance, gravitas (a chorale theme that suggests Saint-Saëns, a Hough speciality) and youthful high spirits that crown this ambitious, expansive and stirring work.

Opening the recital’s second half, Hough presented his own Piano Sonata No.2 (2012). Cast in a single movement lasting close on 20 minutes, the innocent ear (I deliberately didn’t read the composer’s introduction) found the opening bell-like timbres to be Messiaen-like and craggily celebratory yet with ‘warm’ chords in the mix. Later there are violent contrasts – reminding of Webern’s Variations (Opus 27), rapid scurrying (with interruptions) and developing an irresistible, clangourous energy before a soft ending. Heard abstractly, the piece intrigued; recalled afterwards, having read the note, “the brightness of a brash city in the hours of darkness”, the music took on a different, and pertinent, meaning. It will be good to hear ‘notturno luminoso’ again, as will be the case on BBC Radio 3.

To close the advertised concert was a wonderful account of Schumann’s imperishable set of character-pieces that make up Carnaval. Hough gave a delicious performance – with wit, depth and affection – that compelled attention from first note to last and with musicianship before showmanship. Whether in flights of fancy or revealing the most-tender of feelings, the old-world flexibility and generous spirit that Hough afforded this masterpiece will stay long in the memory. Hough’s encore was beguiling, a delightful winding-down, the pianist’s transcription of Das Alte Lied, a touching Austrian popular song from the 1920s particularly associated with Richard Tauber.

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