Stephen Hough – Stunning awakening

Jennifer Gall, Canberra Times
Monday 3/10/2011

Stephen Hough‘s piano recital was a reminder of how a musician’s personality can infuse their performance to awaken in the listener new perceptions of the repertoire. Hough has a mindfulness which informs every movement, from the precision with which he walks on stage to the sharp withdrawal of his hands at the end of a savage phrase. One senses Hough’s critical observation of his playing as his unfaltering technique engages with the recital’s challenges. Even in the most florid passages of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, S178, Hough’s equanimity was uncompromised.

The opening Adagio sostenuto of Beethoven’s Sonata No 14 in C sharp minor sounded, for the first time in my listening life, like the moonlight which provides the popular name for the work. In his interpretation of sostenuto, the pianist created a wash of sound which, in its delicacy, suggested silver light flooding a landscape. Hough’s tempo drew its pace from the resting heart beat, his rubato mimicking the slight variations of this fundamental human rhythm, keeping the ear alert for these clever irregularities in the well known melody. The Allegretto had crispness and an anticipation of the beat to fuel momentum while the final presto agitato was exciting. It was a joy to hear each voice delineated in Hough’s playing in his accentuation of left and right-hand parts.

Hough’s Piano Sonata, Broken branches, commissioned by Wigmore Hall and Musica Viva Australia, is described by the composer as a reference to fragments of fragility, related in theme but incomplete; an oblique tribute to Janacek’s cycle On an Overgrown Path; and a spiritual reference to Christ’s teaching, “I am the vine, you are the branches, Cut off from me, you can do nothing.” The theme of the work reflects Hough’s exploration of the core of Catholicism. Intensely English in construction, the rocking underpinning bass motif, contrasting with light, high pitched searching melodies, reminded me of William Baines’s Silverpoints. I found the work meditative, strange and satisfying.

I’d agree with Hough that “there is a bonkers element to Scriabin”, but the music is intoxicating. In the first movement, Andante of the Sonata No 4 in F sharp major, the contemplative opening bursts into fragments of crazy rags. Scriabin’s revelry in disjointed, stylistic elements had a nice resonance with Hough’s own work. Sonata No 5 provided an opportunity to observe Hough’s hands describing Scriabin’s mesmerising patterns.

Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, S178 was the concluding work of the concert. Once again, Hough’s gift of accentuating one voice in an alternating conversations created depth and colour in this monumental work. In the Andante sostenuto, I was reminded of musicologist A. J. Hipkins’s eyewitness descriptions of Chopin’s lightness of touch, fluttering above the keys to produce scarcely believable delicacy of interpretation.


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