Stephen Hough – review

Barbican, London

Classical audiences expect their musicians to be one-trick ponies, too busy practising to nurture any other talent. But the most glaring exception is pianist Stephen Hough, whose credentials as a composer shine ever brighter. In the unforgiving company of Chopin, Brahms and Schumann, his own work didn't merely hold its own; it glowed.

This programme is one that Hough has been touring on and off for three months, but it still sounds fresh and exploratory. It traces a journey from pitch-black night into daylight, starting with two of Chopin's darker Nocturnes, Op 27, played with an almost trance-like tone, the occasional hint of menace, and an air of slight detachment.

They were the perfect introduction to Hough's coolly rigorous performance of Brahms's Sonata No 3, which did justice to the work's grand scale without overplaying it. The moonlit second movement, a long journey inward followed by a poignant blossoming of the melody, had such scope it could have stood on its own – something the audience acknowledged with a ripple of applause, which Hough didn't seem to mind at all.

Hough's own Second Sonata, premiered last autumn, is entitled notturno luminoso, and it shone the harsh neon of sleepless cities into the programme's nocturnal theme – no doubt we have jetlag to thank for Hough's inspiration here. It opens and closes with harshly sonorous chimes; in between, Hough creates a restless musical maze that gains momentum until it becomes a seemingly unstoppable toccata. For all that those dazzling chimes recall Messiaen, Hough's voice in this piece is distinctively his own, as evocative and assured as his actual playing.

Schumann's Carnaval finally let the daylight in, and under Hough's light touch the geniality of these character sketches threw what had gone before into relief. He finished with his own arrangement of a wistful operetta number, Das Alte Lied, made famous by Richard Tauber, and the last traces of darkness melted away.

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Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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