Recital’s insightful first half

STEPHEN HOUGH

Melbourne Recital Centre

April 19, 2016

Stephen Hough (musicavivaaustralia.wordpress.com)
Stephen Hough

Here was one of those nights when it might have been better to leave at interval.  The popular British pianist, on his third solo tour for Musica Viva, is playing a program that has been well honed as Hough has toured with it through minor (and sub-dominant) English centres, France, Taiwan, China, Japan, Belgium, the Barbican, Canada, followed by a clutch of appearances in the United States.  With his final Australian performance here on April 30, Hough will have given this sequence an airing nearly 30 times in ten months – which is putting to one side his many concerto appearances and interpolated recitals with cellist Steven Isserlis.  The man is nothing if not driven to perform and, judging by Tuesday’s audience, he has an enthusiastic following.

True to his reputation for favouring the less-trodden paths of repertoire, Hough began his night with Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 784.   A clean delivery with a firm hand on the middle movement’s Andante direction made this one of the event’s highlights, even if you might quibble with some pauses and hiatus  points in the first movement that admittedly gave some respite to the slow-to-hatch dramatic bursts in this spartan set of pages.  The pianist’s treatment of the finale with its oscillation between overlapping triplets and its seamlessly extended melodic line in the more regular/straight 3/4 interludes helped to underline the message that, with this composer, more is required than just relying on the score to give interest through inbuilt contrasts; Hough treats Schubert as an ongoing narrative where the parts have to be knitted into an intellectual complex.

The following version of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue impressed even more for the executant’s clarity of texture in a piece where such a quality is often hard to find under washes of pedal clouding.  While the opening pages held interest for Hough’s digital control, his exposition of the chorale with its long sequence of arpeggiated chords complicated by the left hand crossing over, sometimes awkwardly, to outline the melodic line, was remarkable for its authority, the progress of this section fluent and rhythmically sensible.   For once, the fugue capped the triptych, Hough making the later pages almost lucid, even where the action borders on the over-rich in chromatic shifts.  At the conclusion, you were left with the sense of a task accomplished with firm discipline and a brake on any form of excess.

As before interval, two composers featured in the recital’s second half – Liszt, and Hough himself.   His recently composed Piano Sonata No. 3 was commissioned by the British Catholic periodical, The Tablet, to celebrate the publication’s 175th year of operations. Subtitled Trinitas, it has religious connotations beyond its title but the most prominent feature of its nature is its basis in 12-tone row compositional technique.  But you will find only traces of the Schoenberg ethos, let alone style, here and pretty much nothing of anything serial.   Hough bases his row on major and minor triads and the work’s tendency is towards giving these building blocks pre-eminence in their natural state.  The concept is at least as old as the Berg Violin Concerto with its overlapping triads as initial G minor-establishing (for a moment!) material.  Hough’s first-of-three movements, a Lento subtitled ‘Bold, stark’, lives up to its own descriptors and leaves a spacious, clangorous impression.   The middle Allegro, ‘Punchy, jazzy’, struck me as a kind of toccata, one-note-at-a-time passages at high speed punctuated by some chordal breaks.  The last part, an Andante, eventually quotes a hymn – again bringing up memories of the Berg concerto – and also makes use of a high tintabulating punctuating sequence, serving as a kind of decorative motif but wearing out its welcome all too quickly.  Certainly, the flavour in this last segment of the sonata seems to be semi-liturgical. in many listeners’ cases proposing an emotional response; to this listener, however, it seemed a comedown after the harmonic challenges of the work’s earlier stages.

The Liszt bracket contained the first two Valses oubliees, elegantly outlined by Hough, assuredly, but works where the memories summoned up are of gestures and fripperies, lacking anything to feed on apart from a kind of subdued virtuosity and, in the first, that elegiac resonance that Liszt intended to evoke.  Finally came two of the Transcendental Studies: No. 11, the Harmonies du soir extravaganza, and then its antecedent, once known as Appassionata.

Hough made fine work of the first of these, especially when the richly-chorded melody of the Piu mosso emerged triple-piano at bar 38: a fine example of gradually intensifying the dynamic scale.   The No. 10 is intensely demanding and rapid in its figuration; in this case, it sounded over-pedalled and often hard to decipher.  In fact, the pace was so punishingly allegro molto agitato right from the beginning that the concluding stretta simply melded into the work’s pell-mell execution rather than actually raising the energy level.