Stephen Hough review – high seriousness and imaginative intelligence

Barbican, London
With works by Schubert, Franck and Lizst, and the premiere of his own third sonata, the pianist took his audience on a spiritual journey from darkness to light

Even by Stephen Hough’s standards, this Barbican recital was a musical event of exceptional interest and reward.

Hough’s scintillating technique and characteristically sparkling sound can perhaps be assumed these days, though of course they never should be. What gripped the attention from start to finish as well, however, was the high seriousness of the playing and the imaginative intelligence that Hough brought to the programme and its individual parts.

The sense of this recital as a journey was evident both in the controlled restraint with which Hough began Schubert’s bleak A minor sonata D784, and in the fearsome fleet fingering of its finale, each scurrying phrase vividly articulated, with a pair of quite dazzlingly evanescent diminuendos that few pianists could rival at such speed. Hough brought a similar inward intensity to Franck’s masterly Prélude, Choral and Fugue, whose musical and spiritual progress from darkness towards light rang out like a grand arc of pianistic oratory, with the right hand evoking a well-won peal of celebratory bells at the last.

Catholicism was central to all the composers in the recital, which included the pianist himself. Hough’s own third sonata, subtitled Trinitas, here received its premiere. It is a striking contrast with its more restless but equally idiomatic 2012 predecessor, carefully structured around the number three, moving confidently and always articulately through major and minor thirds from austere to perky and affirming. Hough played it from the score and it more than held its own in such exalted pianistic company.

Liszt could never be omitted from a Hough programme of spiritual keyboard journeys. After looking backwards via two of the late Valses oubliées, each exquisitely realised, Hough finally permitted himself to lavish his full technique on the 10th and 11th transcendental studies of 1851, before an increasingly playful trio of encores by Liszt, Minkus (in a transcription by Hough) and Eric Coates – By the Sleepy Lagoon, no less. A keyboard journey through darkness to light indeed.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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