Review: Sir Stephen Hough (piano) performing Liszt, Chopin, Chaminade.
Sir Stephen Hough’s worldwide renown as a pianist makes him as ever the most welcome of visitors to the Cambridge Music Festival, and on Tuesday evening we heard him in recital at West Road Concert Hall performing two major contemporaneous Romantic piano sonatas, and music by the late French Romantic composer, Cécile Chaminade.
Chaminade, now relatively unknown to many, was in her time a much celebrated performer in Europe, Britain and the United States and, in true Romantic fashion perhaps, a performer only of her own works.
Stephen Hough who has long championed her music began his recital with her Study, ‘Automne’, a piece whose theme was both melodic and melancholy. It distinctly recalled for this reviewer Al Jolson’s composition, a hit song of 1920, ‘Avalon’.
In fact, Jolson was successfully sued (1921) by Puccini’s representatives who maintained that ‘Avalon’ had plagiarised part of ‘E Lucevan le Stelle’, an aria in ‘Tosca’ (1900). But there is a possibility (I am suggesting, and I may be completely wrong) that Chaminade who toured 12 cities in the States to great acclaim in 1908 could have been a source for Jolson’s ‘Avalon’.
Hough followed on with another piece by Chaminade, ‘Autrefois’, full of delicacy and tunefulness and, without one being able to locate its provenance exactly, somehow very French.
These two short works, which Hough played with a deep emotional involvement, were followed by a composition very different indeed, Liszt’s towering Sonata in B minor, a challenging work in one movement for which the standard of measurement for years was the first of two recordings by Vladimir Horowitz (1932). Horowitz brought this sonata to prominence, adding it to his repertoire as a work which allowed him to capitalize on the techniques he possessed and which justifiably placed him as arguably first among the greatest pianists of the twentieth century.
Hough’s performance often brought to mind his predecessor, from his percussive, menacing opening which gradually moved through a recurrent singing lyricism to a quiet conclusion, yet exploiting the full Mephistophelean power of the piece where required, and at times unleashing a dynamic energy that seemed to make the piano into a frightening instrument. No work could have been in more startling contrast with the melodies that had opened the recital. Hough’s dynamic range was amazing. He demonstrated an immense technique and an incredible sense of timing, with fortissimo passages rivalling the most delicate of pianissimos in their delivery. Complex passages were sometimes resolved into a single note left suspended in the air. I don’t think I have ever heard Liszt's music more sympathetically played.
After the interval which gave us a moment to catch our collective breath Hough returned to Chaminade. This time we heard two melodic and exquisitely played pieces, Thème verié and ‘les Sylvains’. These so infrequently heard works were very pleasing to the ear and, like all of them, essentially accessible. In some respects one detects perhaps an element of incidental music in Chaminade’s compositions which could have easily lent itself to the early years of cinema.
The recital concluded with a performance of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, op. 58, a work which Horowitz seldom played. He called the first movement a ‘miracle’, but didn’t like the last, and overall considered the composition on the whole to be ‘awkward’ and ‘difficult’. Of course ‘difficult’ for Horowitz didn’t mean what ‘difficult’ means for the rest of us. Nor did the sonata seem to present any difficulties for Sir Stephen Hough who began his performance with strict adherence to the composer’s tempo, ‘maestoso’, stately, dignified.
At the heart of the first movement is a recurrent melody which, like so many of Chopin’s, never fails to disarm those sometime opponents of his so-called ‘drawing room’ musical profile. Bernard Levin might be remembered as one of these, but also as one who surrendered eventually with a newspaper review captioned ‘I’m listening now Frédéric.’
The second movement is a skittering, brief scherzo (moto vivace), a benign version of the eerie fourth movement of Chopin’s Sonata No.2, the one with the famous funeral march, and which Horowitz preferred. The scherzo presented no problem for Hough who seemed to bring out some hitherto hidden structures within it. The third movement’s powerful opening statement moves into a sustained and beautiful melody, and is followed with the exciting presto finale whose demonic, galloping drive reminds one of many such demonic ‘rides’ in Romantic literature.
And so the evening’s programme concluded – on a terrific high. Sir Stephen Hough is unmatched in a versatility, so obviously revealed by this wonderful recital, the ability to engage with the miniatures and monoliths of the keyboard alike with astonishing technique and musicality.
But this was not the end. The packed concert hall shouted for more and were rewarded with two lovely performances, first of Sinding’s popular ‘Rustle of Spring’ and then one of the movements from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke op. 12.
There is no other word for it. Stephen Hough is simply an astounding pianist.