Stephen Hough is a restless soul. As a pianist, composer, writer and painter he has numerous creative outlets, always looking to communicate with the world at large and constantly striving to find an angle. In this latest concert in the impressive International Piano Series, instead of performing pieces of complementary types, Hough turned the tables by pitting two contrasting, almost opposing styles of music against each other, oscillating between the shimmering images of Debussy and passionate German Romanticism. This created a healthy and rather satisfying mix of the dreamy versus the passionate, toing and froing between the two.

Stephen Hough © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Stephen Hough
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Debussy hated the term Impressionism, preferring to talk instead about music’s ability to evoke atmosphere and the mysterious. So it was in this vein that Hough presented glimpses of moonlight, reflections in the water, bells through leaves, golden fishes and a tribute to Rameau, all featuring in the composer’s groundbreaking Images, standing alone as perfect examples of his remarkable innovations in texture, harmony and tonality. For these evocations, Hough created a sound that was pure and translucent, with masterful use of pedals to help accentuate the contradictions between movement and stasis, and the most feather-like of touches that oozed quality. Delicate flutterings turned subtly into nervous murmuring, and unresolved chord sequences in pieces like Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût created a kind of breathlessness. The unexpected rhythmic drive and relentless scurrying triplets of Mouvement contrasted with the ethereal nature of most of the rest, but the pick of the bunch was Reflets dans l’eau, Hough nimbly caressing the keys like a magician to create the undulating effect of reflections in the water and showing not just surface ripples but also depth.

And now, a little-known fact: did you know that 2018, apart from being the centenary of Debussy’s death, has already witnessed a rare lunar event, the “double blue moon”? So it was fitting, even if entirely coincidental, that moonlight was a common thread in the Debussy pieces. The most famous of all, Clair de lune, from his Suite Bergamasque, saw Hough taking a gentle but hazy promenade through the “beautiful and sad moonlight” of Verlaine’s poem, while La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, from Debussy’s second book of Préludes, with its faint hint of the Orient, was delicately infused with gentle splashes of colour.

The two generous chunks of Debussy were each followed by a masterpiece of German Romanticism. Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Op.17 is effectively a tribute to Beethoven but with inspiration also drawn from his beloved Clara Wieck, which Hough skilfully presented as a cohesive journey of emotions through the composer’s reverie. The expansive collection of creative themes in the first movement balanced lyricism with passion, moving into the vibrant march of the second movement. Hough was brilliant here. Full chords, fiendishly difficult leaps and a dynamic, maniacal climax showed him at his technical best, while the languorous, meditative third movement was glowing with pent-up tension and pure beauty.

To close, Hough powered through Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 23 in F minor, “Appassionata” with real fire in his belly. The Allegro assai bristled with energy, Hough pounding away but with carefully-judged changes of pace and occasional moments of delicacy, fingers cascading deftly across the keyboard. The second movement was taken at a slightly faster pace than normal, but much more in keeping with the Andante con moto marking, not over-indulging its leisurely demeanour. I liked this pace, which helped to accentuate the gradual progression of momentum and Hough’s subtle contrasts in timbre between variations. The third movement was electric, which Hough threw out as dark and stormy, and with a furiously demonic coda (played way beyond Presto!).

This was a concert where all the stars were aligned: a programme full of depth and contrast, misty evocations and raw passion, and a pianist on top form, not just technically but in ways that make you experience afresh the transformative nature of music. This happens once in a blue moon.