Stephen Hough Fuses Virtuosity and Expressive Beauty

Debussy and Chopin: Stephen Hough (piano), Royal Festival Hall London, 28.4.2015 (CS)

Debussy: La plus que lente for piano
Debussy: Estampes
Chopin: Ballade No.2 in F, Op.38
Chopin: Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23
Chopin: Ballade No.3 in A flat, Op.47
Chopin: Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52
Debussy: Children’s Corner
Debussy: L’isle joyeuse

Following an evening at the Wigmore Hall on Monday, where Garrick Ohlsson gave a captivating recital of music for piano by Scriabin (review), it seemed fitting to find myself at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday for Stephen Hough’s performance of Chopin’s four Ballades – for, as his biographer Faubion Bowers notes, Scriabin’s teacher fed him a diet of Chopin’s nocturnes, preludes, mazurkas and études, in order to ‘perfect his brilliance as a concert-performing, world-touring pianist’, and Scriabin ‘fell in love Chopin.  He slept with his music under his pillow at night’.   Hough framed the Ballades with works by Debussy, with whose coloristic impressionism and symbolist aesthetics Scriabin had much sympathy.

The term ‘ballade’ refers to a fashionable literary genre of the nineteenth century, but while Chopin’s Ballades are often said to be inspired by the Lithuanian Ballads of the Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz, there is no suggestion that they relate a concrete ‘narrative’.  They do, however, evoke a plethora of moods and imagined worlds and dramas – pastoral, heroic, tragic, ethereal – and Hough’s superlative technique enabled him to convey both the epic scope of the Ballades and the delicate nuances within.

The virtuosic demands of these pieces are both practical and interpretative.  Hough never foregrounded the technical panache, drawing our attention instead to Chopin’s imaginative freedom and boundless invention, and to the pianist’s own flexible treatment of the thematic material and rhythmic structures.  Hough found an incredible variety of expressive means; and the subtlety of his response to individual phrases – with their cantilena eloquence and reflective rubatos – together with the confident independence of his left and right hands, was beguiling.  The result was an impression of spontaneous creativity, but not formlessness, for Hough’s skilful handling of the bridge passages between contrasting themes established coherent overall structures and demonstrated the pianist’s revelatory grasp of each Ballade in its entirety.  Chopin may have disliked programmatic music but each Ballade depicts a distinct expressive terrain and Hough revealed their individual ‘stories’.

The Second Ballade in F major, composed in 1839 and dedicated to Robert Schumann, came first in the sequence.  In the tempestuous second theme, Presto con fuoco, there was occasionally a lack of dynamic equality between both hands, with the bass dominating, but the imitative lines were always clearly articulated.  Hough wonderfully captured the ‘spirit’ of Ballade No.1 in G minor: the opening Lento was assertive and declamatory, while the ensuing Moderato felt impetuous and propulsive, accelerating compellingly through the agitato episode, before the hushed Meno messo which was characterised by a magically soft touch and expressive pedalling.  Throughout there was restless unease which built into a desperate anxiety in the climactic final bars; even the brief interruptions of quietude had a melancholy weight.  The Third Ballade in Ab possessed a persuasive lilt, which at times took on a quizzical tone at points of pause or change of harmonic direction.  Hough carefully explored the inner voices, but above the intricate counterpoint in the left hand the lines sang lyrically.  He whipped through the final bravura cascade with dramatic élan.  The Fourth Ballade in F minor commenced with quietly pulsing quavers which seemed to enter in media res; indeed the entire piece was enthrallingly theatrical, passages of power and emphasis contrasting with episodes of darker reticence.  The rhythmic complexities and the challenges of the multi-part writing were deftly mastered and the tension accumulated stormily towards the turbulent close.

Hough, who writes a Daily Telegraph blog, has remarked, ‘Chopin is more like Solomon, reaching out for one of the Queen of Sheba’s more exotic perfumes, nostrils quivering with the intoxicating, heady harmonies’.  Debussy’s piano pieces share this poetic sensuousness, effervescent colours and pulsating waves replacing Chopin’s fragrant hedonism.  Indeed, Debussy was deeply influenced by Chopin, declaring that he was ‘the greatest of all, for with the piano he discovered everything’.

Hough began the recital with a dreamily lazy rendition of Debussy’s La Plus Que Lente, whose hesitant syncopations, slippery runs and expressive suspensions perfectly balanced gentle melancholy and wit.  Exotic sonorities rang enticingly in ‘Pagodes’, the first of the three pieces which form Estampes.  The upper-register writing was articulated with crystalline delicacy and transparency establishing an ethereal mood, and Hough employed a light percussive staccato which counter-balanced the dense pedalling.  The languid habañera of ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ took a lively turn in two swaying episodes, before the serenity of the Spanish evening returned once more.  ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ was characterised by pin-point accuracy and steeliness: I closed my eyes and could ‘see’ the heavy, slicing raindrops streak to the earth.  A similar exactitude was evident in L’isle joyeux as Hough conjured a wide spectrum of sonorities and rhapsodic ambience.  Children’s Corner was full of innocent charm and touching sentiment.

Despite his unassuming manner and delivery, in this recital Hough fused virtuosity and expressive beauty.  He allowed himself to relax with two light-hearted encores before the wistful poignancy of Grieg’s Nocturne brought the evening to a close.

Claire Seymour

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