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Stephen Hough

by Hoang Pham

Pianist Stephen Hough recently toured for Musica Viva Australia, and Hoang Pham, himself a concert pianist, reports on a recital program that featured Hough’s latest composition, Sonata “Trinitas”, along with works by Schubert, Frank and Liszt – and encores of interest …

The recital reached a rousing conclusion with the Liszt Transcendental Etude No 10. This was a brilliant reading of this famous etude, with tempos always pushing forward together with a truly teasing melodic sense in the lyrical moments. This quality was superb also in the earlier Etude No 11, with the alto left hand melodic moments given a treatment that gave the phrases both a deep singing and speaking quality. The famous Valse oubliee No 1 was crisp and rhapsodic and it was wonderful to hear the less-performed No 2 in this set.

Earlier, Hough performed his Sonata “Trinitas”. This is a fine composition, which on the first hearing, seems to split into two distinct parts. The first, composed using the 12-tone row technique, weaves a continuous development of seemingly atonal clusters of notes, which reminded this reviewer of Aaron Copland’s superb Piano Variations – a work that Hough has recorded and performed in recital before. The second half of the piece, perhaps the more “programmatic” heart, revels in an almost endless display and passionate revelation of different spheres of sound, ranging from the angelic to the earthly, to the softest of softs, and to the deepest of fortissimos – all of this expertly *“piano-strated” and as good as any pianist-composer out there today.

In the first half, Hough had given the audience a fine reading of the Schubert Sonata No 14, D784. The third movement, which has quite hidden technical difficulties, was given a treatment that communicated the hesitant, anxious feeling that the composer must have felt in this troubled time for him. In the second movement, the seemingly incompatible early exchanges between the lyrical melody and the questioning remarks were well-managed, as was the central climax and the beautiful return of the opening melody, this time bathed in sunlight. This range of emotion was also well captured in the opening movement, where the playing was at its best in the quieter and more lyrical moments. They say Schubert reveals his deepest secrets in pianissimo!

The concluding piece in the first half, the Prelude, Chorale & Fugue by Frank, was played masterfully. This piece requires concentration and stamina, especially in the fugue and its long buildup to the triumphant conclusion. Hough was able to give a performance throughout that was full of colour, weaving an endless tapestry of melodic lines, sometimes highlighted, sometimes hidden, floating amidst the seemingly endless and changing chromatic harmonies and virtuosic sweep of the piece. The central Chorale section, ominous, built superbly to the Fugue and the return of the main theme before the conclusion was rhapsodic and appropriately spooky. This is a work that Hough has recorded also.

The recital concluded with three encores. The first, a performance of the Chopin Nocturne Op 15 No 2 that was every bit as magical as any performances by the greats such as Cortot and Rachmaninoff. The second, Hough’s own spin on Waltzing Maltida, with a splash of everything thrown in. The final encore, a haunting and nostalgically felt performance of one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.

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*Piano-strated is a play on the word orchestrated. It implies that the person has gathered together ideas, and sounds, and represented it in a way that would be sound good and make sense on the piano.

The picture of Stephen Hough is by Andrew Crowley.

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