Steven Hough-lrSaturday 16 April, 2016 

Touring for Musica Viva

What does a reviewer do when one of the 10 best pianists in the world doesn’t quite live up to expectations? What if during the concert you hear quite enough to demonstrate that this pianist certainly has more than enough  technique, sensitivity, breadth of understanding and insight to indeed be one of the 10 best pianists in the world, but doesn’t quite manage to bring it all together for a good part of the concert? However doesn’t it stand to reason that even for such a pianist, not everything can come together at every single performance, or in every single piece he plays? … And it didn’t quite come together for a good part of Stephen Hough’s performance on Saturday, 16 April, 2016 at the City Recital Hall.

The recital started with Schubert’s Piano Sonata no.14, D.784, one of those works that divides opinions as to its place in the Schubert piano repertoire. Although Hough honours it, but others see it as inferior to his greatest sonatas. Most are agreed that its tone and content may well be influenced by the circumstances of its composition: Schubert was still trying to digest the implications of a fatal diagnosis that he knew would drastically cut short his life. Hough almost overwhelmed us with his ability to depict the rising rage, but only truly carried the audience’s attention in the rarer moments of quieter reflection – and in the pauses in between – when I held my breath as if waiting for my heart to re-start.

As emotional momentum inexorably builds up in the work, we could clearly hear and deeply feel the battle between Schubert’s choices: an inexorable march towards the grave, or a towering rage, interspersed with all too short moments when his inherently beautiful heart shone forth reflecting the enduring beauty of existence. There were many wonderful instances when it felt as if cascading water droplets were glinting in the sun, rushing from pool to pool with unstoppable energy; however only firm but polite applause followed this piece, reflecting the apparent lack of deep connection with the audience.

The Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue that followed is a mature work of great emotional subtlety and nuance; it’s in a chromatic language that initially might suggest exploration of long unfamiliar emotional horizons, but develops a more confident vocabulary that flowers into lush chords and flowing cross-overs. The multi-faceted, complex – yet crystal clear – fugal aspects might reflect Schubert’s insight into the potential complexities of emotional development in the work; this brought to mind the multiple folding mirrors in a change room simultaneously depicting every possible view from every possible angle, and seemingly into infinity. Although there was the opportunity to feel this complex multiplicity in the fugal music, the expected accompanying emotional content needed didn’t seem to emerge.

Next was Hough’s own work, his Third Piano Sonata subtitled Trinitas; this was a commission from the Catholic periodical The Tablet; it is partly composed in 12 tone fashion, and seems to initially explore many aspects of dynamics, rhythm and even at times clinical dissociation, but later in the piece some tonality and harmony return with a twinkling anthem competing with a harsh refrain in increasingly strident competition; later still there’s a partial reference to the hymnal refrain, Holy, Holy, Holy, taking up the Trinitarian theme. In the last movement, just as this work drew to a close, the audience was at last in Hough’s hands by virtue of the brilliance of the playing and of the composition – albeit fairly briefly.

In the second half, Liszt’s Valses oubliées Nos.1 and 2 perhaps raised the question whether it’s the waltz form itself that was half-forgotten by the composer– and deliberately for the sake of depicting something rather more playful and at times sardonic than a mere ballroom waltz.  So Hough’s interpretation at times brilliantly depicted something like the graceful pirouettes of a slightly tipsy ballerina rather than a scene from an elegant ball; later Liszt aided by Hough’s sure insight leads us into a now dystopian ball-room, full of false leads and hopes of a resumption of some recognizable rhythms or harmonies, until we eventually are twinkle toed off the dance floor altogether – and in fairly peremptory fashion.

However it was really Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes No’s 11 and 10 (played in that order) which electrified the audience and almost transcended time itself. Suddenly Hough was clearly not only in his element, now everything  – focus, stylistic empathy, technical brilliance, sensitivity of the highest order and this pianistic star – aligned. The curtain of hidden brilliance was suddenly drawn: it was if every person in the Recital Hall had now connected with the genius before them. Here were swirling energies seemingly barely tamed, with contradictory currents of dangerous and submerged varieties competing in multiple transforming modes. The last programmed item over, there was that magic pause with an intake of breath – before genuinely amazed and grateful applause broke out.

The several encores included the Salut d’amour of Elgar – so elegantly performed with such style as to make me wonder what a pianist as good as this was doing in a palm court? However the audience was now entranced, and truly on board – after all, there was now nowhere else we could be!

– Andrew Dziedzic

Stephen Hough continues to tour the country for Musica Viva. More information here.



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