Two Magisterial Recitals by Stephen Hough

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Chopin, Brahms, Hough, Schumann: Stephen Hough (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 7.10.2012, and Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 9.10.2012 (GPu)

Cardiff programme:

Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op.27
Brahms: Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op.5
Hough: Sonata for Piano (broken branches)
Schumann: Carnaval, Op.9

Swansea programme:

Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op.27
Brahms: Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op.5
Hough: Piano Sonata No.2 (notturno luminoso) (World premiere)
Schumann: Carnaval, Op.9

Two recitals by Stephen Hough in the space of three days provided a rare treat for lovers of outstanding piano playing. Stephen Hough seems to be in his pianistic prime at the moment, deploying technique, sensitivity and intelligence in interpretations which are individual without being merely wilful.

The first recital was given as part of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s Steinway international Piano Series; the second was part of the Swansea Festival. Three items were common to both programmes (see above). In each case the programme was completed by one of Hough’s own. Hearing Hough play the same works by Chopin, Brahms and Schumann twice in such quick succession was a particular delight. My comments take account of both performances; the interpretative differences, naturally enough, were of no great significance.

All of the non-Hough works are, to varying degrees, pieces which belong to the youth of their composers. The Opus 27 Nocturnes were written in 1836, when Chopin was 26; the titanic Brahms Sonata belongs to 1853, when its composer was 20; Schumann, born in 1810, composed Carnaval in 1834-35.

The Opus 27 Nocturnes are very much a pair, which benefit from being played together, since each throws light on the other, as it were. There is nothing whatsoever of the salon about the way Hough plays this music. There is as much emphasis on Chopin’s strength as on his sentiment. Hough plays both nocturnes (as he played everything in these two recitals) in a manner which lucidly articulates their architecture and avoids the excessive indulgence of detail. His is not a Chopin whose work sounds improvised (Bizet said that “only one man knew how to compose quasi-improvised music, or at least what seems such. That is Chopin”); it has far too clear architecture for that to be accurate. In the first of the pair, the initial evocation of darkness was powerful and the transition to the major was pointedly (but unexaggeratedly) effected. The central più mosso section was invested with a sense of grandeur and power not always heard in readings of this piece, its climax vehemently insistent and seeming to make possible, by its absoluteness, the closing movement into consolation and serenity. The second nocturne, much less heterogeneous in mood, was ushered in with an air of limpid tranquillity, but there was much that was thoroughly virile (Hough’s Chopin is very definitely not that “sick-room” talent that John Field identified) in the ensuing variants on this material, even if the overall calmness was sustained; the close was pure elegance. Pushed for a preference, the performance in Swansea perhaps had even more poetry than that in Cardiff.

I suppose that if one had access to recordings of the two performances of the Brahms’ sonata one might want to put together a selection of movements from the two. But, heard live, both were masterly, both were utterly compelling. One of the first books on Brahms I ever read was a 1933 study by William Murdoch. Looking it up, I find that he says of this sonata that “it is not a grateful concert piece. Its dimensions are too big, it is too orchestral in design and tone, and the tension of the listener is taut for too long”. I like to think that if Mr. Murdoch had heard these performances he might have wanted to withdraw those remarks!

The grandness of Brahms’ conception, the sheer ambition of the work, found a powerful and persuasive advocate in Hough. The darkness with which the initial allegro opens introduced a movement full of conflicts which, as played by Hough, seemed as much metaphysical as emotional. This was interpreted as a music as full of ideas as of feelings. The echoes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony invite one train of ideas, but Hough showed us how the music works in ‘absolute’ terms too. The contested ground of strength and tenderness, of public and private, of the individual and larger powers (such terms can only gesture towards the music’s intellectual complexity) fuels the movement’s fascinating development. The second movement, marked andante, carries lines from Sternau as a superscription:

Der abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint

Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint

Und halten sich selig umfangen

and there is much in the music to justify the presence of these lines. With some wonderful pianissimo Hough brought out the intimacy and union of the lovers, the shimmering of the moonlight, as Sternau’s lines throw their own light on Brahms’ music. The scherzo and trio exist in dialogue with Mendelssohn and Schubert (respectively) more than Beethoven (even if the fifth symphony is again remembered in the trio). The calm of the trio stands in contrast to the almost Mephistophelean quasi-waltz of the scherzo (a contrast which parallels some of those in the first movement), a contrast superbly delineated by Hough. The following intermezzo, which is, as it were, the unexpected additional movement, has a clear structural role, its ‘Rückblick’ a retrospective glance at materials from the second movement – a dimension which Hough brought out very well. The lovers’ unity of the second movement seems to have become less absolute and more troubled; wishes and dreams seem unfulfilled Has Fate perhaps intervened (there are, again, echoes of Beethoven)?

The closing movement has often been politely but unenthusiastically praised for its ‘skill’ rather than its ‘inspiration’. Heard in these performances, however, such faint praise seems unjustified. A movement of considerable complexity, insofar as what had been antithetical elements earlier, clearly distinguished one from the other, are now less clearly distinguished, more thoroughly interpenetrated, or subtly lain atop of one another. Hough has a particular skill in the revelation of voices within voices, of moods within moods, and that power served him well inn his reading of this movement. His concentrated presentation of the doubleness and ambiguity of this music made the emergence of the chorale-like theme that closes, now in F major, the work seem a fully earned affirmation, not merely a convenient gesture of closure. This was a compelling, in some ways revelatory, reading.

The second half of each concert began with a sonata by Hough. The work heard in Cardiff (which was premiered in 2011) is, in Hough’s own words, “constructed of sixteen small, inconclusive sections”. Hough suggests that the title (‘broken branches’) serves to “pull these fragments together”, inviting us to see the work as a collection of “branches from a single tree”. All the sections have titles, beginning with ‘Prelude (Autumn)’ and ending with ‘Postlude (Spring)’. The Winter thus implicitly traversed includes sections such as ‘desolato’, inquieto’, piangendo’ and ‘melancolico’. But as the work nears its end there are hints of renewal (“nothing is so broken that it cannot be healed” writes Hough) in sections such as ‘non Credo’ and ‘’crux fidelis’ (a wordless version of the Crux Fidelis), so that we are brought to Easter and a renewal as much spiritual as ‘natural’. The scheme, as verbalised by Hough, is a rich one and is articulated with a fair degree of success in the music itself. I was able to listen, ahead, to Hough’s recording of the work on BIS CD 1952; I am not sure how much of the music’s argument would have revealed itself in a single live hearing. The work’s large arc is clear enough, in which the materials of the Preluse, in G sharp minor, are metamorphosed in the change to G major in the Postlude. The central idiom of the work might be described as late romantic and there is much to enjoy and admire – though I continue to wonder how dependent a full comprehension is on the work’s verbal schema.

The work heard in Swansea was a premiere, having been commissioned jointly by the Swansea Festival and the Lakeside Arts Centre of the University of Nottingham. In form at least this more obviously merits the title of sonata. It is built, to quote Hough once more, out of “three musical ideas: one based on sharps (brightness), one based on flats (darkness), and one based on naturals (white notes”, representing a kind of blank irrationality”. Insofar as it invites description in terms not purely musical, this is predominantly troubled, uneasy music, not nocturnal music in the mode of Field or Chopin; it speaks rather, of disturbed sleep or sleeplessness, fear and isolation. There are a few glimpses of light and imagination – but they are secondary to the work’s larger effect. The piano writing is fiendishly demanding (one wonders how many other pianists will take the work up) and, compared to its predecessor heard in Cardiff, rather more ‘advanced’, more atonal and percussive. Like its predecessor, however, it ends (largely) where it began. In both works there many echoes and allusions to other keyboard works (are they all fully conscious?); for a pianist-composer so steeped in the great piano repertoire, a pianist who has interiorised so much of the music of his great predecessors, the struggle to locate a compositional sensibility and manner which are truly his must inevitably be very difficult. The straining towards individuality, which sometimes feels forced and effortful, is often evident is evident in this striking, but not fully satisfying, work.

Both recitals ended with Schumann’s Carnaval. In the performance in Swansea, though it was very fine, there were a few small slips – perhaps the demands of the programme had tired even Hough just a little. So preference here would definitely go to the Cardiff performance. Hough was richly in sympathy with Schumann’s abundantly peopled sound world. Here, though, the sense of design remained clear there was a particular air of spontaneity to his playing, of fluidity in the movement from one idea to the next, of, at times, something approaching that mimicry of the very movement of thought that Shakespeare can perform so well. What Hough brought out superbly was the profound unity which underlies and embraces the seeming variety of this remarkable composition; we were enabled to feel a kind of moral and psychological wholeness, a unity far more significant (for the listener at any rate) than the mere formal patterning of those four notes (vital for the composer as a means towards the unification of deeply personal materials) which gave the work its subtitle ‘Scènes mignonnes sur 4 Notes’ (Little scenes on 4 darling notes). Hough brought out the unity which Carnaval possesses as a coherent representation of the contents (and the quirky logic) of Schumann’s mind. The rhythmic and harmonic inventiveness of the writing, its humour and its often beautiful melodies, its alternations of vigour and dreaminess, the abruptness with which tempo and key are changed – Hough responded to all of this and in the occasional freedoms of his rubato one felt only a wholly credible registration of natural mental rhythms, of the ebb and flow of invention and personality. What has sometimes been described as Carnaval’s “bewildering array of movements” (John Ogdon) seemed here fully integrated, and all the more awe-inspiring. Something like the full richness of Schumann’s characterisation, in pieces such as ‘Chiarina’ and ‘Estrella’, was realised; an apprehension (and comprehension) of the underlying unity of Schumann’s psyche, a unity which, in life, Schumann wasn’t finally able to sustain, shone through the ways in which Hough made audible the complex musical, psychological and imaginative patterns of recurrence and echoes across and within the textures of the work, responsive both to the individuality of such pieces as the ‘Valse noble’ and ‘Pantalon et Colombine’ (to mention just two that were particularly striking) and to their role within the larger design of the work.

It was a privilege and a joy to experience the high intelligence which Stephen Hough brought to these two recitals; his sense of musical architecture and the formidable technique with which he is able to serve that sense. In his Chopin, his Brahms and his Schumann the performances were invested with a clear vision of the distinct sensibilities which underlay the works. This was musical recreation of a high order.

Glyn Pursglove