Stephen Hough review – vivid and distinctive

Royal Festival Hall, London
Links between Debussy and Chopin were amplified by Hough’s gorgeous playing, which grew in drama. He sounds like no one else

Debussy and Chopin were the twin subjects of this recital by Stephen Hough, and at times, it seemed, the two composers are not in fact so far apart. Two piano miniatures and two suites by Debussy bookended Chopin’s four great Ballades. It was a deceptively simple, thoughtful programme from this cerebral and distinctive pianist, with fleeting echoes of the earlier Debussy springing up unsuspected throughout the Chopin.

Hough opened with Debussy’s La Plus Que Lente, and his playing made the piece sound like a little torch song, half remembered. Now and then his hands would get a microsecond out of sync, and then tumble back into togetherness again, creating an effect that was gorgeously languid, somehow halting and relaxed at the same time.

That same faraway sound returned in the slow opening sections of more than one of the Chopin Ballades. Hough performed the second one first, and once the explosive Allegro got going his thunderous left hand often dominated the right; indeed, his Chopin sound could be slightly bottom-heavy, and although the melodic line was never eclipsed, one at times wished for a bit more brightness higher up the keyboard. Still, we were unusually aware of the music’s textural richness.

And anyway, Hough never seems content to sound just like any other pianist. Sometimes in his hands the music seemed mysterious and exotic: early on in the Ballade No 4, Hough’s playing seemed to hark back to the misty chinoiserie we had heard in Pagodes, the first of Debussy’s three Estampes. Sometimes it was uncompromisingly dramatic: the Ballade No 1 hurtled to its close in a fight between soft stillness and frantic interjections that were almost demonic.

Returning to Debussy, Hough brought a deftly affectionate touch to the six miniatures of Children’s Corner, and if in L’isle Joyeuse percussiveness sometimes took over from phrasing, the clangorous effect was vivid. Two light-hearted encores later, Hough signed off with Grieg’s Nocturne, in an atmosphere not so far from the dreaminess with which he had started.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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