United Kingdom International Piano Series – Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven: Stephen Hough (piano), St. John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, 17.3.2018. (CR)
Debussy – Suite bergamasque – Clair de lune; Images, Book I; Images, Book II; Préludes, Book II – La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
Chopin – Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op. 35
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, op. 57
For his neatly balanced and symmetrical programme, Stephen Hough imaginatively paired a turbulent sonata by two of the pioneering composers for the piano in the 19th century with the two books of Images by another of the instrument’s great exponents in the 20th. He set the mood for each of Debussy’s three-movement set of reflections – so much more than mere representations or pictures are the disingenuously entitled Images! – with two unrelated extracts from the composer’s output referencing moonlight. The ubiquitous Claire de lune was taken fairly briskly and structured in two distinct halves: the first leading in one sweep towards the succession of rippling arpeggiated chords at the initial climax, following which the concluding section was more veiled in tone, moderating the temper of the piece. The harmonically more complicated La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, though more reposeful, conjured a more inscrutable but no less real set of moods and experiences at the opening of the recital’s second part.
In the Images the foremost impression called up in Hough’s performances was his masterful evocation of atmosphere. It was ‘impressionistic’ not so much in terms of the sensual washes of colour by which Debussy contrasts his music and which Hough certainly brought out of the Steinway he was playing, but through the sequence of fleeting emotions and depictions of physical phenomena, caught in a soft focus, as though just beyond tangible, empirical grasp. Hence it would be difficult – and wrong – to identify distinctly those sounds meant to depict the bells and those generating the overall sensation of Cloches à travers les feuilles; the snatches of melody and timbres which mimicked a gamelan to evoke the Orient in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut without disrupting the piece’s overall soundscape; and the sense of the goldfishes’ watery habitat in Poissons d’or being ruffled by their activity without becoming the musical event itself.
Similarly, in Book One, some notes were etched with crystal clarity to denote the water drops of Reflets dans l’eau but only registering on the surface of the music, whose mood remained essentially fluent and consistent; Hommage à Rameau was cheerily thoughtful; and in the concluding Mouvement, that named important musical quality was handled with lithe facility, and the rhythms inflected meaningfully, ending in glistening runs extending indefinitely into the ether of the silence that inevitably follows the end of any notated score. As often with successful performances of Debussy’s tantalising music, the impression left with the listener is something like a lingering scent, whose presence is as undeniable as it is intangible.
The emotions realised by Hough in the Chopin and Beethoven sonatas were notably more robust. After the portentous opening of its descending diminished seventh in the bass register, there was ample bustle and urgency throughout Chopin’s dark-keyed Sonata No.2. The passionate, lyrical, and even more delicate, contrasting sections cut persuasively and touchingly through the surrounding tumult. In the first movement that sudden interposition was like a moment of briefly-glimpsed redemption, and the long melody of the calm central section of the third movement Marche Funèbre in Hough’s hands was beautifully poised and spun with Mozartian simplicity. Both oases, though, also embodied a Schubertian vulnerability, in contrast with the sense of implacable destiny marching on regardless in the surrounding passages, especially the purposeful tread of the funeral march which was by no means deathly slow.
The performance of the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata was comparatively disappointing, if only because of the high, intelligent standards Hough normally leads one to expect of his interpretations. For all its undoubted vehemence and passion, the overall effect was more one of impotent bluster rather than compelling, argumentative drama emerging from within the logic of Beethoven’s music itself. The quiet opening phrases were quiet but bland, capable of taking on more mystery and foreboding than they did here. Fortunately, that did not preclude drama and conviction in the passages that followed, with the four-note ‘fate’ motif that Beethoven would famously use again in the Fifth Symphony, hammered out decisively. But the forcefulness of this performance tended to be more nervously impulsive and edgy. Particularly in the finale Hough’s attack on the keyboard brought out the middle and lower registers more prominently, breaking the melodic line of the music’s discourse and making its argument lurch around uncertainly, almost as though it were being improvised without a clear sense of what was to follow. It was a pity as the crashing coda would have told all the more meaningfully at the end; a technically accomplished performance would then have become an emotionally overwhelming one.