Stephen Hough, piano, Troy Chromatic Concerts

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Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
Sunday, November 9, 2008, 3 pm

Bach/Cortot/Hough, Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
, Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat, Op. 63
____, Impromptu No. 5 in F-sharp minor, Op. 102
____, Barcarolle No. 5 in F-sharp, Op. 66
Franck, Prelude, Chorale and Fugue in B minor, M. 21
Copland, Piano Variations
Chopin, Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1
_____, Sonata no. 3 in B minor, Op. 58

Behind Stephen Hough’s astonishing recital in Troy, there are significant connections with two others I recently heard in Boston, both with the American pianist Jeremy Denk. In one of these Mr. Denk collaborated with the great cellist Stephen Isserlis (review forthcoming), with whom Stephen Hough often plays and with whom he has made several recordings. Mr. Denk’s ensuing solo recital consisted of a striking, revelatory juxtaposition of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier.” For one thing, it is striking how different Mr. Hough’s pianism is from Mr. Denk’s, a sign of Mr. Isserlis’ great range, if he can be compatible with both of them, and for the other, Hough’s carefully “curated” program was no less enlightening than Denk’s. What’s more, both pianists write their own program notes, and much else. A prolific recording artist, Mr. Hough is also a composer, a poet, and theologian, having written what seems to be a very interesting book, The Bible As Prayer: A Handbook for Lectio Divina, the traditional Roman Catholic discipline of reading Scripture. He has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship.

What we heard, then, in the beautifully balanced, atmospheric acoustic of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, was playing of intellectual rigor and carefully considered consistency, balanced by a sensual ear for the many colors of the piano. I have rarely heard a pianist produce such a variety of color without striving in the direction of treating the piano like a one-person orchestra, for Stephen Hough is a pianist to the marrow of his bones. All his balances, textures, and colors were conceived with the best capabilites of the piano in mind, as well as the personality of the hall, which, after, I believe, three visits he knows well. Hough has an exceptional ability to knit his textures together, no matter how much shading there may be within them, and to achieve clarity, delicacy, and power whenever called for. One has the feeling that every detail, from the program as a whole to the most fleeting ornament has been deeply considered, but one never feels deprived of any sensation of spontaneity, however factitious, as it often is. Mr. Hough has thought through the structure, expressive details, and coloristic effects of his program so deeply, in fact, that everything seems inevitable.

This doesn’t mean that his playing is in any way uniform. On the contrary, it is full of surprises. Just when I was beginning to stereotype him as a lyrical, intimate musician, he produced massive chords with a powerful rhythmic drive. When the accepted notion about a piece was of a certain sort, for example, the etiolated sensiblerie with which Fauré is often played, he tended to go in the opposite direction. Mr. Hough is versatile, if anything. He has penetrated so far into the essence of the works, that momentary demonstrations of emotion or stylistic gestures seem irrelevant. He is an impeccable technician and an intelligent musician who has cultivated a far reaching manner entirely his own. If he reminds me of any other pianist in tone, it is perhaps Sviatoslav Richter, but Hough is entirely his own man.

I thought it curious, that the very first mordant and the following rest of the Bach Toccata and Fugue gave me the impression that this was going to be a very special recital. There was nothing unusual or mannered about it; the opposite, rather. It was the discipline and restraint of this first gesture which caught me. The reading which followed, J. S. Bach in Cortot’s arrangement, further adapted by Mr. Hough himself, was, in this spirit, carefully measured, but subtly powerful, a richly satisfying but spare interpretation in the spirit of the best contemporary organists, Peter Hurford, for example.

Before I go into the individual works, I should explain the rationale behind the program, which is in essence a French program‚ the sort of French program that can include a Saxon, a Belgian, a Pole, and an American. All the composers had Paris in common: they spent a crucial part of their careers in Paris, Cortot acting as proxy for Bach, who never had the pleasure. Mr. Hough calls it “In Paris, not French.” But there is more. As he says, “This recital is about counterpoint: not so much within the pieces (despite the two fugues) but between the pieces. There are two main themes which both hold everything together and which create friction—after all, counterpoint suggests opposition as well as the delight and ingenuity of a musical jigsaw.”

But back to Bach. Mr. Hough’s playing brought clarity and power to the familiar organ work. His superb technique allowed him to give it a hint of organ-like atmosphere without sacrificing detail. His scrupulous attention to rests provided both dramatic pauses and structure-marking signposts. While a suggestion of Bach’s original for organ hovered over it, his approach remained thoroughly pianistic.

From there, Hough embarked on an excursion into the world of Proust, a nocturne, impromptu, and barcarolle by Gabriel Fauré. While he slighted none of Fauré’s dreaminess and delicacy, he also stressed the rigor of the composition and the energy and grandeur of the appropriate sections. Clarity, color, and atmosphere were perfectly balanced. He kept them moving at an active pace, but this did not deter him from fairly extreme, but controlled rubato, in order to enter into the Fauré’s more reflective moods. He produced a gorgeous hushed pianissimo in the opening of the barcarolle.

Mr. Hough then concluded the first half of the program by returning to Bach through César Franck’s richly textured and elaborately constructed Prelude, Chorale and Fugue in B minor, a work of considerable emotional and coloristic range. Following his sonic organ metaphor, Hough displayed an astonishing ability to contrast softly touched voices against a brilliant descant.

After the break, Mr. Hough entered into a totally different, but still recognizably Parisian mode in Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations of 1930. It was Copland’s favorite among his works, and I would agree heartily. Based on a simple and infinitely variable four-note motif, it covers a vast range of expression. Hough’s keen ear for rhythms and rests, his discipline, range of color, and consummate sense of structure and shape, made the work exceptionally coherent and flowing. It also gave him a chance to exercise his capacity to produce truly massive sounds from his instrument.

The program concluded with more music by an émigré, Chopin’s Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1 and his Sonata no. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. This was rather unusual Chopin. Although his technique was obvious enough, Hough refused to play for display and focused on the construction and drama of both the Nocturne and the Sonata. I have never heard the shape and proportions of these works come through so clearly. What’s more, he had what seems to me an original and thoroughly compelling view of Chopin’s daring harmonies, both as progressions and as passing dissonances: he brought out the way in which Chopin keeps us in suspension, rather like Wagner in Tristan. The Nocturne, which contains some of Chopin’s most beautiful and moving music, was both exquisite and dramatic, as if it were telling some fascinating story in verse. His flowing tempo did not get in the way of his expressive contouring of the line. The sonata was both heroic and intimate, the feeling of suspension I just mentioned acted as a wondrous enhancement to the composer’s execution of sonata form, making it seem almost quasi una fantasia, but in the last movement, which he announced with a fairly quick, alertly timed statement of the opening chords, its heroic mood asserted the conventions of the sonata most stirringly, and the effect was almost symphonic.

One could of course go on and on with Stephen Hough’s Parisian premise: Liszt’s arrangement of the Tannhaüser Overture, for example, Stravinsky, Satie, Carter, and Rorem, and of course Debussy. Mr. Hough kept Debussy back for a surprise as an encore, and his approach was as much of a revelation as the program itself. La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin—Preludes, Book I, no. 8—was unusually taut and went far beyond the usual dreaminess. He concluded with his own “On Falla,” which was both atmospheric and fiery, dominated by intense, almost violently rhythmic chords.

Mr Hough managed to realize such a wealth of compositional detail and emotion in the program, that it seemed like a vast journey through the world and through time. Paris is the only city where one could make such a journey without leaving it.

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