Stephen Hough – review

St George's, Bristol

Honouring the bicentenary of Franz Liszt's birth, pianist Stephen Hough made the composer's B Minor Sonata the culmination of this recital. For lesser mortals, it would have been enough to ease themselves in with a low-key sequence of works, but not Hough. In his questing, nonchalantly didactic manner, he created a whole programme of what he called "strange sonatas", each as far from conventional sonata form as possible, but nevertheless tightly constructed.

Beethoven subtitled his "Moonlight" Sonata Op 27 No 1, Quasi una fantasia, acknowledging its difference. Hough gave the famous first movement a deeply reflective quality and the finale a ferocious intensity. After this came an equally intense performance of Janáček's Sonata IX "From the Street", written in the aftermath of bloodshed at a political protest and couched in emotional musical language which itself hit the solar plexus. Straddling the interval were the fourth and fifth sonatas of Scriabin, again stunningly delivered with a characteristic balance of virtuosic extravagance and poetic languor.

Yet these were as nothing by comparison with the authority Hough brought to the Liszt, a tour de force. Using the sustaining pedal to make the opening descending scale sound not just darkly mysterious but startlingly modern, the importance of Liszt to the 20th century was immediately pointed up, and later reinforced in two brilliant Debussy encores. Hough's colossal power brought out the grandeur of Liszt's single architectural span, while his crystalline figuration allowed every tiniest note to sing. At the same time, the intellectual rigour was tempered by an aura of fantasy. Rather reassuringly, smudges in the Beethoven had showed Hough to be human and not infallible but, in defining Liszt's genius so emphatically, he also proved his own.


Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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