Stephen Hough in Recital = MENDELSSOHN: Variations serieuses, Op. 54; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111; WEBER: Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65; CHOPIN: Waltz in C-sharp Minor; Waltz in A-flat Major; SAINT-SAENS: Valse nonchalante; CHABRIER: Feuillet d’album; DEBUSSY: La plus que lente; LISZT: Valse oublieee No. 1; Mephisto Waltz No. 1 – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion CDA67686, 79:28 [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi] **** :
Recorded 22-23 July 2008 in Henry Wood Hall, London, this rather “bi-polar” recital features Stephen Hough (b. 1961), perhaps one of the United Kingdom’s supreme instrumentalists. Intelligent and digitally gifted, Hough consistently likes to conceive his keyboard as an experiment-in-progress, testing the limits of his own knowledge and incorporating new pieces into a considerably, catholic repertory. The schizoid nature of this program has two deeply melancholy, aggressive pieces opening the progression; then, we rather retire from the “grave” concert hall to the salon, where a motley crew of composers dazzle us with dexterous fare.
Hough opens with a thoroughly virtuosic reading of Mendelssohn’s D Minor Variations, conceived as par of a Beethoven monument–in the form of a piano album–to be erected in Bonn, structured as seventeen variants subdivided into thematic groups. The dazzling display of keyboard techniques embraces canons, syncopes, three-hand effects, sostenuto and staccato passages, tremolandi, brilliant runs, and one variant in major in the form of a chorale. That Hough gobbles up the difficulties becomes a given, with a palpable, sustained tension applied to the course of the eleven-minute piece, which never suffers a dynamic or emotive sag. The final Presto plays like a rush to musical judgment.
The Beethoven Op. 111 (1822) resists a clear tonality thrice before it settles its tumultuous undercurrents, Maestoso, in C Minor. A trill and an excursion to A-flat are supposed to relieve the tension, but don’t count on them. The three-beat pulse and its bass rumblings dominates the entire movement, which moves through counterpoints and expansion to a conciliatory C Major. Hough makes the music of the first movement bristle and purr, though we feel that Orpheus rides a passionate tiger in the manner of Henri Rousseau’s famed self-portrait. Hough does his best to project a spiritual stasis–harmonic and emotional serenity–upon the Arietta, whose affect remains unbroken throughout its pulverization into little chemical elements, what Ellison in his Invisible Man calls “movin’ without moving.” Bouyancy, caressing delicacy, and piquant charm insinuate themselves into Hough’s reading, a rare occurrence in this work, so often approached as a dark labor of Hercules, or that demi-god’s liberation of the Bound Prometheus.
Suddenly, the spirit of the waltz seizes Hough, and we must share his musical thrall. The piano becomes an Aeolian harp, and elastic rhythms, bejeweled gown, and waxed moustaches reign supreme. Weber’s rondo breaks into three distinct sections, each with its own dance filigree. At key points, the accents resemble an animated mazurka. Hough reminds us that if Brailowsky, Fleisher, and their ilk could milk the bravura from this large work, so could Schnabel evoke its noble poise. The two Chopin staples usher us to the ballroom, though the C-sharp Minor skips and pirouettes away from anyone except a balletic acrobat. The A-flat from Op. 34–harmonized in sixths like its Op. 64 counterpart–combines pageantry and breadth, and perhaps something of the Romantic’s dream-vision. Saint-Saens composed seven piano waltzes, each a character piece, and this Op. 110 (1898) has a fin-de-siecle affect, in D-flat Major, seductive, Parisienne, deliberately atavistic. Chabrier’s mignonne (1890) briefly trifles with major and minor, a little, blond flirt who haunts a cabaret, perhaps in anticipation of Jeanne Moreau of Jules et Jim fame. Debussy’s Le plus que lente (1910), a tender, haunted G-flat Major evocation of ladies who take slow tea, smacks of T.S. Eliot’s irony towards those same ladies who speak too casually of Michelangelo.
Franz Liszt penned waltzes in his wild youth and then abandoned the form for almost half a century. The nostalgic Valse oubliee is one of four, this first in a subtly caustic F-sharp Major, whose glittery second theme in right hand octaves wants to nestle with the eternal. Hough’s penultimate piece is Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz (1860), whose opening fifths prepare the Devil’s violin for a wild D-flat waltz that croons and gallops alternately with appropriate, demonic fury. Here, Hough challenges the likes of Jorge Bolet for suave, confidential seductions and bravura octaves. Hough’s last offering, however, moves from the ingenious to the ingenuous: Waltzing Matilda, the unofficial Australian national anthem. Hough re-sets the 4/4 meter in 3/4, coaxing its “true” waltz character into an optimism we do not hear when ends the film version of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach–here, hope spring s eternal.