Stephen Hough review – short pieces suffused with power

Wigmore Hall, London
Pianist Stephen Hough is at his best in a selection of rarities and out-of-the-way repertoire

Stephen Hough's Wigmore programme was essentially devoted to character pieces – short but distinctive works that reflect a particular mood rather than developing an argument. He began with a set that still sounds modern, even if it is more than a century old – Schoenberg's Six Little Pieces, Op 19. These are tiny miniatures, but each summons up a surprisingly intense emotional charge, especially when performed with the expressive power Hough brought to them, pointing up their late-Romantic heritage, even if their tonal language had come loose from its bearings.

The centre of his first half consisted of three pieces from the mid- to late 19th century by composers not often associated with the solo piano. From his 1884 collection Stimmungsbilder, Richard Strauss's Träumerei is deftly written salon music, with Hough delicately sketching in a lyrical melodic line. Wagner's 1861 Albumblatt contains material that would scarcely feel out of place in Tristan und Isolde, while Bruckner's 1868 Erinnerung has a much wider scope than such pieces usually do – even hinting at the symphonies yet to come.

Often at his best in out-of-the-way repertoire, Hough brought an exemplary sense of advocacy to these rarities, drawing out the intrinsic musical character of each work while showing genuine care for the individuality of its piano writing.

The set of Brahms's Fantasies, Op 116, felt less even, with more vitality needed to energise the faster capriccios, though with some refined colouring in the slower, gentler intermezzi. Schumann's Carnaval – a substantial sequence of character pieces drawn together into one of early Romanticism's most extraordinary flowerings – began in rather ordinary fashion, but as it continued Hough mustered his resources in a display of pianistic imagination and technical bravura that increasingly met the music's challenges head-on.


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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