Stephen Hough at Royal Festival Hall

Bach, transcribed Alfred Cortot & Stephen Hough
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565
Nocturne No.6 in D flat, Op.63; Impromptu No.5 in F sharp minor, Op.102; Barcarolle No.5 in F sharp minor, Op.66
Prélude, Choral et Fugue
Piano Variations
Nocturne in B, Op.62/1
Piano Sonata in B minor, Op.58

Stephen Hough (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 January, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Stephen HoughThis was a generous and (for performer and audience alike) demanding recital. The links were Paris (immigrants, visitors and, until the final encore, only one born-French citizen, Fauré), offering “counter-point” between the pieces composed in that city and recalling the artistry of Swiss-born, Paris-associated pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) who was a noted exponent of all the composers (Copland aside) that Stephen Hough played here.

Indeed Cortot made a material appearance early on with his, and Hough’s, arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue, probably not by J. S. Bach and probably not composed for the organ that we’re used to (more likely it was intended for the violin) – so it is fair game. This collaborative arrangement worked a treat, an organ-like effect created by the use of the pedal and not without elements of fantasy and dynamically-inflected tension and, finally, rising to a thrilling upsurge of power.

Three pieces by Fauré made for contrast; in one sense these are exquisite miniatures … but they are also so much more, elusive and heart-touching sometimes becoming more demonstrative (but always from ‘within’ the music) and revealing a dry humour. Hough is a wonderfully searching player of Fauré, finding the necessary lightness of touch yet digging deep into the composer’s recesses. César Franck (born in Belgium) didn’t leave us too much original piano music (although Hough has recorded a whole Hyperion CD of it). Prélude, Choral et Fugue is a big, serious piece yet with a melting heart in the form of the Choral, which Hough played with wonderful inwardness and daringly hushed pianissimos. The outer sections were absolute in conviction and reached pealing triumph.

Although, on paper, Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations (1929 and later orchestrated) seemed at-odds with the rest of the programme; however, Copland had been in Paris (studying, like so many other composers of the time, with Nadia Boulanger). Hough brought much finesse to this relatively short (10-minute) piece, one that has a pioneering spirit as well as indivisible logic (Stravinsky looking on at times, it seems), even if one sometimes feel that Copland strayed a little too consciously into enfant terrible mode.

Hough, as he had done after the opening Bach, might have left the platform for a while, for it was a little too soon for Chopin to replace Copland, even with a Nocturne example that is tonally elusive and however raptly Hough played it (some superb trills) before taking on the majesty of the B minor Sonata. Although the finale didn’t quite gel and there were a few mishaps during it, the opening movement benefited from the lack of an exposition repeat (emphasising Hough’s focussed approach – Chopin the structuralist rather than dreamer) and keeping it in proportion with the movements that follow – a scherzo given with enviable poise, clarity and lightness and a limpid slow movement that was deeply sensitive.

There were three encores – first was ‘Evocation’ by Albéniz (from Iberia), languid and full of Eastern Promise; second was something by Hough himself, On Falla, which passed for the real thing; and the afternoon concluded with a vision of loveliness, ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ (from Book I of Debussy’s Préludes), which offered a couple of minutes of enchantment.

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