Hough’s Consistent and Intelligent Journey into the Past

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, R. Strauss, Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Hough, Schumann: Stephen Hough (piano) International Piano Series, St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, 6.5.2014  (CR)

Schoenberg  Six Little Pieces, Op. 19
R. Strauss Träumerei, Op. 9, No. 4
Wagner Albumblatt, WWV 94
Bruckner Erinnerung, WAB 117
Brahms Seven Fantasias, Op. 116
Hough Piano Sonata No. 2 (Notturno Luminoso)
Schumann Carnaval, Op. 9


In his recital for this year’s International Piano Series in Oxford, Stephen Hough charted a more or less backward chronological traversal through some little-known works by the great exponents of the Austro-German Romantic tradition, starting from the point of its disintegration in the atonal – though not yet serial – Six Little Pieces by Schoenberg. Intriguingly, of those composers featured in the first half, it is only Brahms who has any serious foothold in the pianist’s repertoire, and even then his piano music is rarely the aspect of his output that would first enter the music lover’s mind when considering this composer.

Schoenberg’s Six Pieces are highly concentrated miniatures, compressing into virtually epigrammatic form intense musical thoughts which – like Brahms – he would usually develop into far larger, sprawling forms. It is not the precisely etched integrity of Webern’s miniscule structures which they convey however, but rather a series of extreme subjective states. This is what Hough evoked in his atmospheric performances, conjuring up the eviscerated spectres of such monuments of late Romanticism as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or the Symphonies of Mahler.

Although the following three pieces by Richard Strauss, Wagner and Bruckner respectively exuded an apparently more charming, straightforward character, in Hough’s hands they still seemed to issue from a very personal, even subconscious, dimension – somehow attained through performances of great control and composure. In Strauss’s Träumerei particularly, Hough’s expert exploitation of the Steinway piano’s sonorous middle bass register at his disposal ensured the requisite introverted, dreamy mood. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Wagner sounded most contented and at ease. Bruckner’s Erinnerung (‘Memory’) dates from 1868 and so is a relatively early work, composed between the First and Second Symphonies. However, like Schoenberg’s Six Pieces, Erinnerung seems like a distillation of the much larger structures drawn out elsewhere in its composer’s output – in this case, the luminous progression of triads in the climactic central section sound like a presentiment of the Adagio from the Symphony No.7, though also with a hint of the doleful falling sevenths of the Fifth Symphony’s slow movement. A sense of the magisterial breadth of the Seventh’s Adagio was communicated here.

Compared to Schoenberg’s Pieces, Brahms’s Seven Fantasias are positively symphonic in scale. Even though they stand in a similarly diminutive relation to the rest of his output, as do those Pieces in respect of their composer’s work, Hough tended to emphasise the dramatic and grandiloquent in these Fantasias, especially in the wild Capriccios standing as the first and third parts in the sequence, with their big Rachmaninovian chords. Hough also made Brahms the pivot between earlier Romanticism and atonal modernism, with a Schubertian sorrow expressed in the Intermezzo second item on the one hand, and the strange, sighing harmonies of the Intermezzo in fifth place on the other, anticipating the expressionist world of Schoenberg.

Hough’s own Piano Sonata No. 2 (premiered in 2012) paints a variety of images of light in darkness, though not as peaceful nocturnes. Amidst the prevailing Germanic pedigree of the programme with compositions evincing an impeccable harmonic logic, Hough’s Sonata perhaps demonstrates a more French sensitivity to colour and sonority. It is certainly a dramatic work, seeming to strain at something beyond itself with big, bold chords reminiscent of Messiaen’s pianistic writing in such a work as the Vingt Regards. However the incandescent flourishes whizzing up and down in the highest register of the keyboard at the climax of the work’s central section recalled the last piece of Debussy’s Second Book of Preludes, Feux d’artifice, though without the latter’s celebratory mood. Neither Hough’s composition nor performance were treated as the vehicle for histrionics or virtuosity for their own sake, and he remained in perfect control of even the wildest and most devastating sections.

The same was also true for Schumann’s dazzling Carnaval. What can seem like a disparate, picaresque sequence of character sketches were here held together by the pianist in one dynamic whole, imbued throughout with the sense of irrepressible joy initially proclaimed in the opening Preamble. Hough’s secret, here as elsewhere, was to play insistently but without rushing, resulting in performances of admirable consistency and intelligence.

Curtis Rogers

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