Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Stephen Hough @ Wigmore Hall, London

11 June 2011

In the year of his 50th birthday, the pianist and polymath Stephen Hough is enjoying a sky-high level of popularity in a multitude of arenas: quite aside from the critical acclaim which meets his every performance and new recording, he continues to produce compositions of exceptional clarity, expressiveness and sensitivity, and is one of the most widely-read of culture bloggers.

This specially-constructed evening at the Wigmore Hall gave us a taste of all of these sides to the man, starting with a solo recital entitled Strange Sonatas by Hough himself. At either end stood two well-known mountains of the repertoire, Beethovens Moonlight Sonata (No. 14 in C sharp minor) and Liszts Sonata in B minor, sandwiching an enticing filling of Scriabins fourth and fifth sonatas and the world premire of Houghs own sonata, broken branches. All of the works featured in the recital are in some way unusual or flout convention indeed, their very unconventionality was the very thread which bound them together.

Beethoven wrote his sonata in an age when pianists simply did not launch straight into a work at the beginning of a performance, but would lightly warm up in an improvisatory manner. Thus, the famous opening to the first movement (the moonlight description comes from the poet Rellstab, not from Beethoven himself) with its endless arpeggio formulations, which then segues directly into the delicate Allegretto, would have at first seemed perfectly normal to Beethovens audience, before leading them to wonder when the main theme was going to appear.

This was reflected in Houghs shaping of the whole work, with the first two movements gliding serenely by as merely a prelude to the brooding animalism of the final Presto agitato it was as if Hough was fighting both against some raw force contained within the piano and with the instrument in order to release that force. Stormy yet always harnessed, and infinitely multi-hued, this was as fine a Moonlight as Ive ever heard.

In contrast, the longer-haul Leviathan that is Liszts magnum opus demands much more from a listener, and a wider spectrum of attack from the performer its five movements also fade from one into another, marked by four prominent themes that span the whole range of the piano. The immense power that Hough summoned up from his entire body drove the whole performance, showing clearly Liszts overarching structure for the piece, while never obscuring any of the detail and rapid finger work. The teasing ending, when the opening descending figure continually returns, yet quieter each time, was delightful, reminding us that Liszt was never just about showmanship, but also delicacy and sensitivity.

Whilst each section was characterised by the motif of a falling semitone (Houghs allusion to one of his own Mass settings), each had its own vivid and individual identity yet, as Hough stated, there is no way that any of the sections could be played in isolation. Strongly reminiscent of Jancek and also of Scriabin, the gently disorientating nature of the ever-passing movements led from the uncertainty of Autumn (a disquieted G sharp minor) to the resolution of Spring (a semitone drop anchored on the mediant of the triad, B) although the final note, a quiet, high G sharp in the right hand left a lingering reminder of the start of the journey.

The two Scriabin sonatas, linked by key (F sharp) and chronological proximity (1903 and 1907), gave the whole of the middle of the recital a brighter, floating feel again, Scriabin was pushing the boundaries with these works, sprinkling them with poetic performance directions such as con voglia (the key to the openings of both sonatas), quietissimo and giubiloso, and Hough brought out the devil-may-care high spirits within, fingers dancing all over the keyboard.

The two works are both driven by the appearance of strong melodic themes, as well as their extreme manipulation by Scriabin, and having these lovingly treated at their every appearance by Hough helped to show the contrasting structures of the two works, particularly that of the fifth sonatas one extended movement.

The evening was rounded off by the world premire (yes, another one!) of Houghs song cycle Other Love Songs, a collection of texts by authors including Julian of Norwich, Langston Hughes and A.E. Housman, which had been commissioned by the final performers of the evening, the Prince Consort. Written for various combinations of soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone, the piano part is for three hands at one piano a reflection, said Hough, of the fact that none of the texts he chose is about conventional love between a man and a woman.

Other Love Songs was commissioned so that it could be put between Brahmss two sets of Liebesliederwlzer, and, put simply, it is a work fully deserving of the recognition and praise accorded to those sets of songs. Its a beautiful work, but not one that casts love only in rose-tinted, warm, caring tones there are outbursts of extreme passion, not least in The Colour of His Hair, a Housman poem commonly thought to refer to Oscar Wildes imprisonment for homosexuality, which Hough sets as a violent sea shanty, reflecting the anger of a village mob up in arms against an outsider in its midst.

This and other stronger moments are tempered by intimate settings of Langston Hughes and, particularly, of the episode in St Johns Gospel where Jesus asks Peter three times Do you love me?, the message being that the love that God shows is open to all and unconditional.

Other Love Songs is a thrilling addition to its genre, and I do hope it will be taken up and performed more widely the Prince Consort are already giving it dedicated advocacy, and their recording of the work (sandwiched by the two aforementioned Brahms sets) is available now. On the basis of tonights performance, I heartily recommend it.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org

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