Stephen Hough Goes for the “Strange”

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven, Hough, Scriabin, Liszt: Stephen Hough (piano), Symphony Center, Chicago, 10.6.2012 (JLZ)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, no. 2 (“Moonlight”
Hough: Sonata for Piano [broken branches]
Scriabin: Sonata for Piano no. 5 in F-sharp major, Op. 53
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor

In his notes for this recital, pianist Stephen Hough called the program “strange sonatas,” suggesting the unique qualities of his selections. Each merits attention for the ways in which it demands consummate technique and expression. In the end, the program proved not strange at all, but demonstrated the pianist’s deep knowledge of the repertoire and what works suit his remarkable abilities.

Hough’s focus in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata was definitely not strange—an exceptional performance of a work familiar to many. Hough approached the first movement deliberately and brought out the harmonic shifts and chromatic inflections. In the second movement, his phrasing created a sense of intimacy. And in the final movement, his technical virtuosity alone helped create the excitement.

In sixteen sections, Hough’s Sonata for Piano [broken branches] is expressive and original. He explained the title as a means of drawing the sections together into a unified whole—which he then proceeded to do—in an apt analogy between branches and “album leaves” commonly found in piano literature. Hough’s idiom is tonal, with expressive dissonances adding color reminiscent of Hindemith or Bartók. He also invokes some familiar hymn tunes, and quotes from his own Missa Mirabilis.

Hough concluded the first half with Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 5—brilliant from the start, with sustained intensity and virtuosity. He rendered the low-register figuration with clarity; the note-perfect flourishes sounded as spontaneous as if they were improvised; and the complex rhythmic figures were metrically precise and persuasive. It was a breathless display of elegant bravura.

The second half was devoted to Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, in a commanding, fully integrated reading with both breadth of expression and organic unity. Hough did not indulge in empty pyrotechnics but gave full attention to Liszt’s harmonic idiom. The dynamic levels were exploited to full effect, with rich, resonant chords where required, and beautifully transparent sounds elsewhere. He explored the score as if he had composed it himself, in a powerful performance to cap the evening. Even so, Hough had the energy to perform two encores—nocturnes by Chopin—which had as much polish as the rest of the program.

James L. Zychowicz