With Piano Rarities, Hough Examines Romanticism

United StatesUnited States Schoenberg, Strauss, Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Liszt: Stephen Hough (piano), Alice Tully Hall, New York City, 13.4.14 (DA)

Schoenberg: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke
Strauss: “Träumerei” from Stimmungsbilder
Wagner: In das Album der Fürstin M
Bruckner: Erinnerung
Brahms: Fantasien, Op.116
Liszt: Sonata in B Major

In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Robert Winter writes about a decline of the piano recital. Gone, he suggests, are the glory days of Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, and Claudio Arrau, let alone the pre-war greats like Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot, and Edwin Fischer. Even in New York and London, there is apparently now only a “niche market.”

This isn’t how I experience it. I moved to New York only two years ago, and I have quickly discovered that to live here, with its endless passing-through of the great pianists of today and tomorrow, is constantly to be reminded of the vibrant health of the genre, in playing and in acclaim.

Several pianists working today consciously provide a link to the grand tradition built up over the decades from Liszt to Rachmaninov and beyond, but one who does so more consciously than others is Stephen Hough. A pianist of welcomely capacious tastes, Hough has a rare gift for programming. This fascinating matinée was a journey from the miniature to the massive, which also served as an exploration both of works by composers rarely associated with the piano, and composers linked to the piano above all. It was a probing examination of Romanticism, fully aware of the change over time that a scan of sixty years of musical history would lead one to expect, but anxious to draw connections, especially to the legacies of Liszt and the debts of Schoenberg.

There has always been something cheeky about Hough’s humour, and who else would treat the Sechs kleine Klavierstücke as an amuse bouche? I last heard them from Mitsuko Uchida exactly a year ago, and whereas Uchida used them to connect Schoenberg to Bach, Hough drew out associations with much later composers, especially Brahms, Schumann, and, inevitably given the program’s direction, Liszt. All are, of course, valid. This was Schoenberg for the soirée, unusually smooth in places (the first and third pieces), wonderfully refined of touch in others (the second and fifth), and reluctant to push modernist boundaries even some might consider it absolutely necessary. Written slightly later than the others and explicitly composed as a reaction to Mahler’s death, the last piece was unbearably hollow, precisely because of the context.

Then, to a trio of works scarcely heard in this form. Here there was the “other” “Träumerei,” Strauss’s rather than Schumann’s, a poised vignette that seems to hang in the air, the work of a young composer clearly charmed by Liszt. There, a rare solo work from Wagner, left in the autograph book of Countess Pauline von Metternich-Winneburg, a songful snapshot of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg possessed, like the music-drama, of extraordinary cumulative power as a melody moves between hands. Finally, Bruckner of all people, with an Erinnerung (“Reminiscence”) that could have been Chopin were it not so obviously Teutonic, so characteristically organ-like in the way its colours changed, and so full of typical Brucknerian chord progressions.

On to Brahms and the Op.116 set heard less often than its later confreres, crucially the progressive Brahms of both Liszt and Schoenberg. Hough’s aristocratic playing was ruffled for the first Capriccio, snappier in its attack and its rhythmic incision than any of the Schoenberg had been. That abruptness would return in the final piece, in D Minor like the first, but generally loss, instability—and yet dignity—were prevalent throughout. Hough’s golden tone worked wonders here, not quite so autumnal as some, but refreshingly clear-eyed.

Finally, the composer and the work that personifies the piano. In total contrast to the last performance of the Liszt sonata that I heard, Hough’s approach was one firmly embedded in tradition, in the context of the composers Liszt was influenced by and would influence in turn. Tradition, though, need not be staid or calcifying, as the composers represented on this programme well knew. And so this was vital Liszt, rooted in the old and yet heard anew.

Other pianists tend audibly to carve this music into sections, three “movements” even, but not Hough. Here there was truly a sense of “developing variation,” Schoenberg’s concept, Brahms’s gift, and Liszt’s success. One knew exactly where the music was going, and where it came from, but that never inhibited spontaneity, risk, or shock. There was something especially demonic about phrases that, in a metaphor often used for this work, pertained to Mephisto, something especially grand about the rising chords of the Almighty, something more ecstatic than usual about the trysts of Faust and Gretchen. I did wonder how far Hough’s Catholicism allows him a particular view of the piece. Certain passages of transcendence sounded uncommonly like the moments of Grace to be found in other of Liszt’s works, the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude and the Légendes in particular. Yet the performance entranced and excited regardless of faith, as “pure” music that looked to Tristan and beyond. Given Liszt’s unfair and unwarranted reputation, that was perhaps the greatest achievement of a very fine recital indeed.

David Allen

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