Stephen Hough, piano
January 22 2022
Review: William Ruff
An artist, still at the top of his game, in a programme of jaw-droppingly difficult music
The world of classical music is blessed with many fine pianists but there are few who get people running faster to the box office for tickets than Stephen Hough. If pianists were ranked like tennis players he would comfortably be in the world’s top ten.
Amongst the reasons why he’s been at the top of the tree for nearly forty years is that he appears completely in control even when playing the most jaw-droppingly difficult music. It’s not just that his fingers find the notes with uncanny precision, but he’s able to do so much with them: phrasing is full of fresh insight, his tonal palette wide and subtly nuanced. His music-making springs from a wide and deep understanding of history, literature, philosophy – as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of music. His paintings are frequently exhibited; his novels and books of essays sell well; he is a composer in his own right. ‘Polymath’ is a word that could have been coined specially for him.
Saturday’s Lakeside recital was predictably a sell-out, even though much of the programme would have been unfamiliar to the audience. All four pieces required virtuosity of the highest order, starting with Alan Rawsthorne’s Bagatelles, short pieces written in 1938 for Hough’s teacher Gordon Green and clearly full of poignant memories for him.
Then came Schumann’s Kreislerliana whose origins are so bizarre (involving a tomcat’s autobiography, amongst other things) that even the composer thought it unlikely that the work would ever be performed as a whole in concert. Stephen Hough clearly disagrees, very much in his element as he explored each movement’s need to be ‘extreme’: very fast, very slow, very excited, very intimate and so on. Judging from the audience’s enthusiastic response, you clearly don’t need to understand what was going on in Schumann’s mind to find the journey exhilarating.
Stephen Hough started the recital’s second half by playing his own Partita, a dazzling sequence of high-energy toccata-like movements interspersed with more lyrical and reflective Spanish-style dances. It all sounded impossibly difficult to play.
Finally Stephen Hough demonstrated that he is as adept at poetry as he is at fireworks. Four favourite Chopin pieces (Ballade No 3, Scherzo No 2 and two Nocturnes) were dispatched with a mixture of elegance, passion and total command of tonal colour. The audience demanded an encore, of course: Mompou’s Cançons i danses No 1 fitted the bill perfectly.
Stephen Hough, piano