Stephen Hough | Classical review

Assembly Rooms, Bath

Stephen Hough's programme for this Bath festival recital was a tribute to the Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot. To honour fully such a musical legend requires a comparable mastery, and Hough has it. His slight frame and understated manner belies the physical might of his playing. Yet it is not so much the power that is transfixing as the rigour and penetrating intellect that Hough applies at every level: the listener's attention is immediately caught and nailed to the spot.

Hough opened with his own arrangement of Cortot's transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. The thundering weight of the bass line not only conjured the illusion of the organ's pedal notes, but resonated right up through the instrument to maximise the impact of the chromatic harmony. By contrast, the voicing of the fugue was achieved with impeccable clarity. Hough brought the same incisiveness to Franck's Prélude, Chorale and Fugue, its climactic contrapuntal web balancing that of the Bach, but ending in a typically Franckian carillon flourish.

Hough's ability to weight the tone and, simultaneously, use the sustaining pedal to capture and transform the decaying sound was revelatory, nowhere more so than in the three pieces by Fauré that bridged Bach and Franck. In these, Hough created an impression of dappled light and fluctuating shadows while shaping sweeping arcs of melody.

Poetic instinct was a Cortot characteristic and in the second half Hough brought piercing insight to Chopin, the ultimate poet of the piano. In an elegant pairing of the B major Nocturne, Op 62, with the B minor sonata, Op 58, the balance between the Bachian harmony underpinning the structure and Chopin's expressive sensibilities was perfectly calibrated.

The Bath festival continues until Sunday. Box office: 01225 463362.


Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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