Stephen Hough – What a little bit of Moonlight can do

Vincent Plush, The Australian
Monday 3/10/2011

On his third recital tour of Australia, Stephen Hough describes his program as “really about weird sonatas”. It’s a throwaway line that does neither the pianist nor the music justice. This recital is nothing short of revelatory.

Hough’s agenda is an exploration of the sonata. On paper, its a pretty mundane thesis. In performance, it produces an exemplary recital experience crafted by a master renowned for his intimate platform manner and volcanic insights.

Houghs program was bookended by two of the best known sonatas in the canon, both hackneyed to death in countless graduate recitals.

Yet in his no-nonsense, almost impassive delivery of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Hough revitalised and transformed the work. The tempi were near perfection, the rubato sections undemonstrative, those familiar rippling triplets poised and imperturbable, enabling him to draw out a duet between two outer voices.

Similarly, the Liszt B minor Sonata, a genuflection in this titan’s bicentennial year, sounded symphonic, a black-and-white blueprint for some imagined huge orchestral fantasy. Hough presented this warhorse not as some sort of explosion of sonata form, but as a reinvigoration of it. Between these were two lapidary sonatas by Scriabin, his fourth and fifth, cheekily separated by intermission. In barely 20 minutes, Hough drew out unfamiliar colours and perfumes from Scriabin’s signature harmonies, transporting his audience on a wild horse-ride of emotion.

Hough had been asked to include an Australian work in this program; since taking out Australian citizenship in 2005, he felt entitled to fill the bill himself. He describes his Sonata for Piano (broken branches) as “16 small, inconclusive sections” whose 15 minutes collate “branches from a single tree”.

That tree is Janacek, pruned and neatly clipped, but still discernible. Another composer looms large here too, Britten, reminding us, moving to his centenary in 2013, how great a shadow he casts over recent British music. Like Britten, another pianist-composer, Hough splinters and repeats simple musical figures, reassembling and presenting them in new guises. His new sonata is an attractive, even appealing work, which aligns itself to a tradition that has wandered into a postmodernist landscape.

Rewarded by encores of Chopin and Falla, Hough’s audience applauded not mere virtuosity (although there was plenty of that) but an insightful intelligence. If I don’t hear Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata for another 40 years, I shall be happy knowing that I’ve probably heard it at its best.


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