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Stephen Hough Recital:   Stephen Hough (piano) Wigmore Hall, 17.1.2008 (MB)

Mendelssohn – Variations sérieuses in D minor, Op.54
Webern – Variations, Op.27
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.111
Weber – Invitation to the Dance, Op.65
Chopin – Waltz in C sharp minor, Op.64 no.2
Chopin – Waltz in A flat major, Op.34 no.1
Saint-Saëns – Valse nonchalante, Op.110
Chabrier – Feuillet d’album
Debussy – La plus que lente
Liszt – Valse oubliée no.1
Liszt – Mephisto Waltz no.1

This recital fell clearly into two halves. The first focused upon variation form, the second upon the waltz. A packed Wigmore Hall was understandably eager to hear Stephen Hough, as was I. However, I came away feeling a little disappointed. Flashes of brilliance – sometimes, especially in the second half, rather more than that – were accompanied by some perfectly respectable yet surprisingly workmanlike pianism.

The Mendelssohn Variations sérieuses have had a number of advocates over the years, but I do not find an especially strong work here. The theme is a little dull, which need not betoken dull development; yet, despite some interesting moments, Mendelssohn does not seem particularly inspired for many of the variations. That said, the Variations found an able advocate in Hough. His touch was beautiful and there was a real sense of cumulative development as the variations gathered pace. The syncopations of the fifth variation were tellingly presented and the part-writing of the tenth variation’s fugato was projected with an admirable balance between contrapuntal clarity and harmonic progression. Hough hastened towards a dazzling peroration in the coda.

Webern fared less well. Hough’s was very much a horizontal rather than vertical reading, whereas the music requires an equilibrium and a dialectic between the two. The notes were very clear, crystal-clear even, but without the crystalline perfection – let alone the meaning – that, for example, Maurizio Pollini brings to this miraculous score. The second movement, Sehr schnell, sounded relentlessly loud, despite the acknowledged dynamic contrasts. Its notes sounded stabbed at, rather than sculpted. Usually this work is over in the twinkling of an eye; here, it threatened to overstay its welcome.

Beethoven’s final piano sonata received a reading somewhere in between. There was little about which one could justifiably complain, although, on the other hand, this was not a performance one will be likely to recall several years hence. An unusual aspect was the forthrightness of the opening Maestoso. One lost something in terms of harmonic ambiguity, but one sensed a kinship with Beethoven’s earlier masterpieces in C minor. Indeed, much of the first movement sounded closer to ‘middle-period’ Beethoven than to the more typically rarefied sublimity of ‘late’ Beethoven. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that: holy ground does not always necessitate removal of one’s shoes. Yet something of this noble work’s secondary simplicity was lacking. Initial presentations of the first subject, in both the development and the recapitulation, sounded a little matter of fact and hard-driven, but there were also passages of considerable beauty, more in tune with the extraordinary metaphysical vistas Beethoven reveals. With the second-movement Arietta, we returned, of course, to variation form. There were once again some beautiful things here, not least those all-important trills, preparing their breathtaking modulatory way (all the more breathtaking for the movement’s general lack of modulation). Hough remained utterly secure in his technical command. He exhibited a clear understanding of the music’s structure, without ever quite appearing to be breathing its air of another planet.

It seemed a little cruel to position Weber’s rather trivial Invitation to the Dance – which sounds better in Berlioz’s orchestration – next to two of Chopin’s Waltzes. Despite a little haziness at one point in the passagework, Hough proved an able advocate for the Weber, but he could not entirely obscure its sectional writing and sometimes rather threadbare invention. To think that this was the work of the composer of Der Freischütz! The Chopin waltzes received generally fine readings, especially the C sharp minor work. Hough exhibited a sound command of idiom and style: not the most overtly ‘Polish’ of readings, but there are many ways to perform Chopin. Inner voices, of which there are fewer in the waltzes than in many other Chopin works, were made to tell where they did appear, but never at the expense of the longer line, nor indeed of a dancing grace. I retained a nagging doubt, however, that there remained unplumbed emotional depths.

Saint-Saëns’s Valse nonchalante did what it said on the tin. It was mildly interesting to make its acquaintance, but I doubt I should rush to hear it again. Chabrier’s Feuillet d’album, whilst hardly a profound work, exhibited more charm, both in itself and in Hough’s account. The pianist also had the measure of Debussy’s slyly ironic, yet far from un-affectionate La plus que lente. Debussy’s accomplishment, however, rather forcefully consigned his compatriots into the shade.

The one serious disappointment in terms of performance from the second half was the first Liszt Valse oubliée. Its technical challenges posed no problem to Hough, but he rather glided over the musical content. Liszt of all composers needs to be treated as more than an opportunity for pianistic display. Perhaps Hough was holding something in reserve for the first Mephisto Waltz, for this received an outstanding performance. The astonishing opening accretions of fifths underlined that we are but a stone’s throw, if that, from Bartók. Mephistopheles’s music was dangerous and enticing, though never in a flashy sense. Faust was dangerous, exciting – and beguiling. Hough played like a man – indeed a Faustian figure – possessed, and received a deservedly rapturous innovation at the end. It was worth having attended the performance simply for this final piece. The recital was being recorded for release by Hyperion.

Mark Berry


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