The Magic World of Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough at the Festival Hall
It was obvious from the programme last night that we were in for an evening of subtle poetry ,half lights and mysterious poetry.
One could almost smell the perfume twisting in the air as Stephen Hough drew us into his magical world with a hypnotic performance of Debussy Claire de lune.
It was Bryce Morrison that had told me that it would be the most magical way to open a concert under the sensitive fingers of this pianist so admired by that supreme magician Shura Cherkassky.
A very large gathering for a programme that included the Schumann Fantasie and Beethoven Appassionata but little did they expect to be drawn in to the secret world of whispered secrets by this true magician.
A Yamaha piano seated so proudly but so alone in the vast space of the Royal Festival Hall.
Only one other person have I known do the same in this very hall and that was Sviatoslav Richter.
Where with the Debussy Preludes we marvelled at how quietly and what poignant meaning he could draw the sounds of our dreams- and probably Debussy’s too- out of this great Japanese box of hammers and wires.
We dreamt together drawn into a magic world as we were tonight under the gaze of a full moon.
Debussy’s moon as Stephen Hough so eloquently says in the programme “…the imaginative soul can discern a lunar glow shining on the lovers in the third movement of the Fantasie ,but Beethoven shaking his mighty fist from Mars.”
As he says he was trying for a complete contrast between the Debussy triptychs – The Images Book 1 and 2- which are his piano sonatas even if their descriptive entitled movements stand alone as ” sensual paintings with mystical suggestions.”
To contrast with the two German Sonatas – The Fantasie in all but name a Sonata and was conceived as a tribute to Beethoven dedicated to Franz Liszt and the Appassionata.
Having set the scene with Clair de lune there followed in its shadow the Images Book 2.N.B not Book 1 and there was a reason.
“Cloches a’ travers les feuilles ” with bells appearing and disappearing like magic into the rarified air that surrounded this magic circle .
The control of sound and the absolute perfection of nuance at a barely audible level was indeed a tour de force of a great virtuoso.
One so often associates virtuosity with speed and volume but the real virtuoso is he who can also control and project sound at the other end of the spectrum.
As Gilels famously said when he took the west by storm:”If you think I am good just wait until you hear who follows me ” meaning Richter of course.
Volodos is just such a virtuoso and hearing his amazingly tantalising encores played with phenomenal subtlety I could well imagine the public in Paris on the appearance of the young Horowitz exclaiming “the greatest pianist alive or dead”.
Stephen Hough has also recorded live all the concertos of Rachmaninov and Saint Saens and much else besides but his encores including a little waltz of Delibes reminds us of the Golden Era of Levitzski and Godowsky.
But our pianist tonight is also a thinking musician and socially aware writing very learnedly on many different subjects of concern in the Daily Telegraph.
He is what one might call a true”Romantic Man” who has an urgent need to communicate and express himself in so many different ways.
He also holds what he calls a “surgery” at the Royal Academy of Music where he shares his wisdom and knowledge of the keyboard with his younger colleagues.
Yes colleagues for that is how he treats them and aims to hear what problems they might have and how he might be able to help them.
Not the usual grand masterclass which can so often be at the expense of humilitaling rather than helping great young talents flocked to play to their idols.
And the chill that descended in the second of Images “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” was immediately dispelled by the antics of Debussy’s” Poissons d’or.” Thrown off with an ease and charm and slightly raising the temperature for the greatest outpouring of love that Schumann offered to his beloved Clara.
Agosti used to underline the two notes in the sublime last movement that signified Cla….ra.
The passionate outpouring was contained in this world that had been created and only dispelled for a moment when Stephen swept across the keyboard with his right hand to the bass at the most significant point of maximum passion.
Having seen so well the overall architectural shape but never forsaking the quiet emotion in the heartfelt melodic passages that intervene.
Even playing with what one would term old fashioned rubato from the pianists of the Golden era of the romantic tradition. But it was always in such good taste and just added to the poignancy of this great lament. It could have so easily in lesser hands become pure imitation of a bygone age but here we were totally convinced by his immersion in a style that kept this vast audience totally mesmerised as if in some intimate salotto.
The quotation from “An die ferne Geliebte” – to the distant beloved-played with just such a rubato but in Stephen’s hands tonight it just added to the intimacy that had been created.
Dispelled slightly by the March “Massig .Durchaus energisch.”
Great rhythmic energy from these dotted rhythms that in lesser hand can be so tiresome in Schumann.
An unrelenting forward movement only dispelled for a second in the magical central interlude.
The famous leaps in the treacherous finale of this movement was even for this virtuoso not an easy hurdle to negotiate in the slumbering mood that he had created.
But Dr Hough had thought of that too.
The sublime slow movement was of course perfection in this poets hands.
The final pages where the melody passes from the treble to the bass before a gentle climax dissolving into nothing was pregnant with meaning and such a sumptuous sound created that the silence before the final three chords was achingly beautiful.
The piano tuner in the interval checking a piano that had been so caressed by its lover that he very unusually had very little or nothing to correct .
Again opening also the second half in the light of the moon with “La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune.”
The streams of light cascading gently to the awaiting magical chords paved the way for the Images Book 1.
Much less ethereal than the second book and thus leading the way to Beethoven’s Appassionata where he ” throws down the gauntlet not only to pianists but also to the instruments of his time”.
“Reflets dans l’eau” has rarely sounded so fine as tonight .
The extreme technical demands became a wash of colour and the final chords spread over the whole piano suddenly made sense as never before.
I would have preferred a more aristocratic sound for the urbane melodic line of Hommage a Rameau.
It is a very particular french sound that Poulenc personifies and which Artur Rubinstein was the absolute master.
But Stephen had chosen this sound for his mood tonight and we were held captivated by his conviction and absolute authority.
Bavouzet recently said that the only fortissimo indication in the whole of Debussy’s piano music was in this piece .
Benedetto Lupo,playing the same programme in Washington on the same day was not convinced .
I would be very interested to know the validity of such a statement from such a distinguished player who recently celebrated the centenary day of Debussy with us at the Barbican.
(All informed views would be gratefully received).
The wash of sound in “Movement” was a remarkable feat not only at the beginning and end but with the incredible washes of pure sound in the middle section spread over the whole keyboard.
So often treated like an etude the scarbo type disappearance of this plasma of sound was just like a magician disappearing into dust.
So the scene was now set for the Appassionata.
Great rhythmical control and at last in the coda of the first movement the pianist could let himself go with a fervour that brought a flush to his face such was the exertion obviously deeply felt.
The great contrast with the menacing opening motif and the great abrupt interruptions broke the spell and brought us into the realm of a true revolutionary spirit.
The extreme control of the left hand triplets made the fragments spread over the keyboard so clear for the first time.
The military semiquaver passages played with a drive and precision of a true brigade of cavalry.
He had no difficulty in spreading the vast arpeggios between the hands to achieve clarity and precision as the true” doctor” would, but it did not modify the feeling of struggle and outbursts of rage that they signify.
The slow movement played at a real “con moto” as Beethoven requests.
A funeral procession as Agosti would say.
There was certainly no sentimentalising Beethoven in this pianists hands.
It was obvious from the definite decision he had taken in the first variation.
I have never heard the right hand chords so clipped but it was for the unflinching reason of allowing the melodic line to sing in the left as never before.
Total control in the last movement and Allegro ” ma non troppo” made the accelerando to the final Presto coda even more exciting.
Almost rearing out of control in the final page as the exhilaration and exertion had reached the just fever pitch that Beethoven intended.
I would have followed Beethoven’s final pedal over the last nine bars but such was the excitement generated I bow to the spur of the moment almost improvised rage that was so magnificently communicated.
The subtle poetry of Schumann’s 5th of his posth Symphonic Studies brought us back into the realm of dreams .
Such sublime sounds drawn from the instrument came as a relief after the enormous tension generated.
Chopin’s famous Nocturne in E flat op 9 played in the true old romantic style with such subtle colouring to almost be beyond belief that in the 21st century we could look back with such poignancy and relief to an age when time seemed to stand still and leave us time to look around and admire the beauty that surrounds us.
It is still there and thanks to such a magician for reminding us today.