Stephen Hough: An original perspective on sonatas

Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald
October 19, 2011

SPEAKING from the stage, Stephen Hough subtitled his program “strange sonatas”, although the familiarity brought by generations of amateur fingers to Beethoven’s Sonata in C sharp minor, Opus 27, No. 2 (the “Moonlight”) would have broken the ice for most.

Hough nevertheless brought an original perspective, turning some of the piano’s most well-known notes into something rich and strange. The opening arpeggios were not exaggeratedly slow but moved forward with a distracted, absent quality. The melody was veiled and underprojected, with the overall mood of thoughtful preoccupation only occasionally interrupted by premonitory emphatic bass notes. The unalloyed good cheer of the central movement and the driven impatience of the finale both followed without a break and almost before one realised it, the rumination had passed.

Hough’s own Sonata for Piano (Broken Branches) was a series of 16 fragmented ideas. Some, such as the culminating section “Non credo”, were sustained and elaborated; others started only to be abandoned immediately. It was indeed a strange work to bind together with the title “sonata” since, in place of the logic of development and closure that was the essence of the sonata in Beethoven’s day, it explored the logic of inconclusiveness and putting thoughts aside.

Hough’s approach to Scriabin’s Sonatas No. 4 and 5, both in F sharp major, was also singular, with none of the drifting rhythm, romantic yearning or freedom of tempo that is usually part of the performance practice of this music. He adopted a clipped, intensely precise approach and bright dry sound with sparing use of the pedal. When the resulting syncopation and cross rhythms in the second movement of the Fourth Sonata and the second idea of the Fifth were combined with Scriabin’s fondness for added sixth chords, the result was strangely reminiscent of jazz.

In Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, Hough’s conception was symphonic, isolating and layering its motives in a way that favoured fragmentation over surging continuity. The outer sections had magnificent intensity and strength, though, for me, the work’s architectural and expressive needs are better served if the slow central melody is allowed to open out more spaciously.

Sonatas were put aside for the encores in favour of three superbly coloured gems by Chopin, Hough and Mompou.

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