Stephen Hough: No Amateurs Need Apply

United StatesUnited States Chopin, Brahms, Hough, Schumann: Stephen Hough (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York 4.3.2013 (SSM)

Chopin: Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 1
Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2
Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5
Stephen Hough: Piano Sonata No. 2, “Notturno Luminoso”
Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9

In this month’s BBC Music Magazine, Stephen Hough has contributed an article entitled “A Masterpiece or Not? That So Often Depends on How it is Performed.” From the title, one would think it a clichéd subject: of course a great performer has the power to make or break any work. He or she can make any piece a masterpiece or, if poorly played, a “not-masterpiece.” But what Hough discusses is a different issue: “Why is it that some works performed by anyone if minimally played correctly retain their masterpiece status, while other pieces require an exceptional artist to make them seem great?”

Hough mentions Brahms’s First Piano Concerto as an example of making “sense in any decent performance,” whereas his “‘Second Concerto’ requires a much more subtle interplay between instruments and tempos to have a full impact.” The piano in the Second is on from the second measure and plays almost continually until the end; the First can almost be played without the piano, so dominating is the orchestra.

How would Mr. Hough analyze his own concert? Do the two Nocturnes of Chopin require a masterful performance or just a playing of notes to be acceptable? I can’t imagine someone doing these pieces with technical accuracy but without a point of view or an infusion of emotion. In the first Nocturne, Hough took a darker look at the score, using more pedal than usual and putting emphasis on the left hand. This made it contrast more sharply with the second Nocturne in D-flat Major. But even the D-flat Major, often played dreamily, in Hough’s hands was toughened up. The melody was there but less in the forefront.

By any standard, Brahms’s Piano Sonata No. 3 would fall into the group of masterpieces requiring a high level of attention for the performance to succeed. Hough played the work by the 20-year-old Brahms as if the composer needed to express his adolescent rage and exorcise his devils. The colossal structure held together even if there were moments when the playing seemed overwrought.

It was a whole other world when Hough played his own piano sonata, an interesting and relatively accessible piece as far as contemporary music for piano goes. Much of this accessibility came from the indirect references to other composers and the use of a repetitive motif to hold the piece together. The beginning run of dissonant chords brought to mind Charles Ives; the more mellow parts could have been from one of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. The use of disparate chords followed by a virtuosic burst of runs and arpeggios, varied and repeated many times, is a signature of Messiaen’s keyboard works. It was interesting to note that the other works on the program were performed without score, but his own composition required both score and page turner.

Hough really came into his own in a multicolored performance of Schumann’s Carnaval. Every piece had its individuality and character. Hough seemed to settle into his comfort zone, more relaxed than in the first half of the concert, delighting in the variety of these miniatures. A few pieces were played a bit too hard: the “valse noble” was a waltz but it was not very noble, and the “papillons” were a little to heavy to float. Any possible thoughts that Hough may have made some wrong interpretative decisions were simply blown away by the thoroughly convincing final character piece. If this was a march by David against the Philistines, my suggestion to the Philistines would be to retreat quickly.

The resounding coda was met with equally resounding applause.

Stan Metzger