Pianist Stephen Hough appears to be a man of boundless musical talent, tireless energy, intellect and generosity of spirit. He shares these attributes with his audiences with a sincere enthusiasm devoid of any dark undertones of superiority. His spoken and written words are as much a delight to absorb as his piano playing, and audiences were clearly enthralled by his performance of five ‘Strange Sonatas’, three encores AND a Q and A session last Monday night in Sydney, presented by Musica Viva at the City Recital Hall. The concert is repeated on Saturday afternoon 22nd October at 2 pm.
There is little point waxing eloquent about what is established and undisputed – Hough’s mastery. What is worth looking at is the way he interprets the masterworks and the way he brings something new to an already crowded slate? What also makes us sit up and listen are the hidden gems that are offered for consideration – in this case, two sonatas by Scriabin – Nos 4 and 5, both in F# minor.
The opening sonata by Beethoven ( No 14 in C sharp minor, Quasi una fantasia opus 27 no 2 ‘Moonlight’) was delivered with sensitivity without sentimentality. During the Q and A, Hough commented that despite the work being staple fare for pianists, he came to it just recently, adding that he eschews listening to recordings of works that he is reading, to keep his realisations completely naive of those which have gone before.
Then followed Hough’s own ethereally beautiful Sonata for Piano, broken branches. This 16 movement sonata was commissioned by Wigmore Hall and Musica Viva. Interestingly, while Hough performed the fiendishly difficult works by Liszt, Scriabin and Beethoven from memory, he performed his own work with the score. Not surprisingly, this was raised during the Q and A session. It was a seemingly simple question, but the answer is complex. One aspect was that he treated his work as a defined piece of music and didn’t want to appear to be improvising along the way. (The work is already published by Joseph Weinberger and will be released on CD in November). Another aspect is that with a increasing trend towards breaking from conventional forms of music, newer music is indeed harder to remember and to predict – even if it is your own composition.
The Scriabin and the Liszt sonatas were pure joy to hear. Then we were treated to not one, bit to three encores – an impossibly fluid rendering of the Nocturne, opus 9 no.2 by Chopin, another of Hough’s own works ‘On Falla’, in the style of Manuel de Falla ..(or was it ‘On Fire’ in the style of Falla’s Danse rituelle du feu? ), and finally, from 20th century Catalan composer Frederico Mompou, ‘Jeunes filles au jardin’ (Young girls in the garden).