Stephen Hough reviewed in the Cumberland papers

Steve Moffatt, Rouse Hill Times
19 October 2011

As well as being the complete pianist, Englishman Stephen Hough is a philosopher, theologian and one of Britain’s most popular cultural bloggers.

Fascinated by what he sees as “moral dilemmas” – who are we to judge an artist like Richard Strauss’s response to the Nazi regime, for example, or the thorny question of child abuse and the Catholic church – Hough is forever thinking outside the square.

He could easily have trained as a Catholic priest, but forsook that calling for music. He is now considered by many the finest pianist of his generation.

It came as no surprise that a musician as rounded as he should choose a program of “strange sonatas” for his latest visit to Australia for Musica Viva.

Beethoven’s Moonlight is no stranger to our ears but it shocked his contemporaries for breaking the fast-slow-fast sonata mould.

In fact this work is now so familiar that performers seem to shy away from playing it live, which means that we miss out on one of the fiercest and most thrilling fast movements that Beethoven wrote.

The works Hough presented were all spectacular showcases for his pianistic skills, but equally fascinating were the characters of the men behind the works.

The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was by all accounts a totally obnoxious individual – his contemporary Rachmaninoff described him as “a swine” – but his use of harmony and tonal colours influenced many 20th century composers.

Egotistical to the extreme, he believed himself to be godlike, perhaps because he was born on Christmas Day.

Liszt, too, was a fascinating character. Like Hough he too was attracted to the church but chose the piano and later a composing career. His Sonata in B minor, which closed this concert, is one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire.

The other composer on the program was Hough himself. His sonata Broken Branches is both an acknowledgment of Janacek’s cycle On An Overgrown Path and a reference to Christ’s quote in St John’s Gospel: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing.”

This work received its Australian premiere. Hough explained that Musica Viva wanted him to play a work by an Australian composer. As he is a citizen here he decided to compose a piece himself.

“I wanted to try and capture a feeling of despair and sadness in as little music as I possibly could,” he said.

Although dark, it ends with a section titled “spring”. “It’s the same wound, but the wound is no longer bleeding,” Hough explains.

This superb and thought-provoking recital is repeated at the City Recital Hall Angel Place on Saturday, October 22, at 2pm.

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