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Stephen Hough Plays Chopin: Cambridge Music Festival

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To describe Stephen Hough as a high achiever would be to underestimate his talent. Not only is he one of the most distinguished of living pianists, he is also a composer himself, an exhibited painter, a writer of poetry, of fiction and of non-fictional prose, for all of which he is widely recognised and celebrated.

Stephen’s much-anticipated performance for this year’s Cambridge Music Festival took place at West Road Concert Hall on Thursday evening and was spellbinding in works both familiar and perhaps less well-known, and which included one of his own compositions.

The performance began with the 4 very short Bagatelles of British composer Alan Rawsthorne. Despite their individual brevity each is extremely moving, from the powerful and insistent first movement to the melancholy of the elegiac fourth. It is interesting that Hough chose Rawsthorne with whom to begin his recital. Of dual nationality himself was it perhaps an affirmation of his Englishness before the work of the great European composers to follow?

Pianist Stephen Hough. Picture: Robert Torres (52059302)
Pianist Stephen Hough. Picture: Robert Torres (52059302)

Schumann’s Kreisleriana is a piece inspired by a weird tale of the German writer E.T.A. Hoffman. It has 8 fantasies which make up the sprawling cycle of essentially slow and agitated movements reflecting the temperament of the Kreisler figure in Hoffman’s story, as well as maybe throwing some light on the manic-depressive nature of the composer himself. It seems that no-one before Schumann could ever have imagined such music. Stephen Hough captured perfectly the elusiveness of the work, its light and shade, as well as its strange, disturbing, almost hallucinatory feelings.

Especially memorable was Hough’s performance in the last of the eight movements, where his right hand played its own jaunty rhythm while the odd rhythms of his left intruded a vague sense of menace. Rather than reaching a definite end, the work then simply faded away. At the other extreme it resembles, for this reviewer, its composer’s Humoreske which seems, by contrast, to have no beginning – just comes out of the blue, as it were.

Hough followed what must be a draining experience for any pianist (Kreisleriana is more than half an hour in performance) with a demanding composition of his own. He has said that his Partita takes its inspiration from the cathedral organ in works by figures he loves, such as Widor, Vierne, and Dupré, as well as from dances by the Catalan composer, Mompou. The final Toccata (touch and technique) requires more or less the same degree of virtuosity as the previous composer Schumann’s own formidable Toccata. Hough rose to the challenge he had set for himself, however, delivering a bravura performance.

Pianist Stephen Hough. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke (52059305)
Pianist Stephen Hough. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke (52059305)

The second half of the evening’s concert was dedicated to the music of Chopin. Three Nocturnes had been chosen from among those which spanned the composer’s entire career. As with many Romantic figures Chopin found inspiration in night, that period most congenial to a creative spirit which welcomes the darkness and works by its inner light. Hough’s serious, focussed and undemonstrative approach seemed to reflect Chopin’s music’s rightful place among the fantasies of Mozart and the pure melodies of Italian opera, rather than, as so often, being historically placed as the expression of a drawing room sentimentality.

After such taxing and sustained pianism one would have understood if Stephen Hough had selected something friendlier to a pianist’s stamina such as one of Chopin’s quieter Preludes perhaps, or a Mazurka with which to end the recital. But instead he concluded with a fiendishly difficult Scherzo (No. 2. In B flat minor), full of the tension created by the anxious questionings of the repeated opening notes and their dramatic answers, and the beautiful cantabile section, itself replaced by the urgent expressive climax which eventually resolves the piece.

The audience of course called loudly for an encore. To its delight Stephen returned to play Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 bringing to a conclusion what had been throughout a wonderful performance by a master of the piano repertoire. It is to be fervently hoped that Stephen Hough will bring his brilliant talent again to the Cambridge Music Festival where he will be, as always, eagerly awaited.


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