If one agrees or not with his sometimes-idiosyncratic interpretations, nobody could contest that Stephen Hough’s recitals are well planned and intellectually daring. The British musician, a true homo universalis who in 2001 became the first classical music performer to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, is always trying to prove a point. In recent New York appearances, he surrounded his own Third Sonata with music by Schubert, Franck and Liszt (2016) and explored connections between works by Debussy and Chopin (2015). His most recent Carnegie Hall recital, part of the Keyboard Virtuosos series, was meant to be a celebration of Debussy’s heritage at one hundred years after the composer’s death. Juxtaposing Debussy’s music with opuses by Schumann and Beethoven, Hough used this opportunity to argue against ingrained beliefs that consider French music to be capricious and colorful while German music is more about architecture and structure than anything else. For Hough, a piano work by Debussy is not just about charm, whimsical improvisation and Impressionism, the label that the composer categorically rejected. His short pieces are meticulously constructed and anchored in Cartesian rationalism. On the other hand, Beethoven’s turbulent compositions can be more about rule-breaking than rule-obeying and many of Schumann’s works are bipolar, split between the introspectiveness of Eusebius and the ebullience of Florestan, the two characters that the composer concocted himself.

Stephen Hough at Carnegie Hall in 2015 © Christopher Smith
Stephen Hough at Carnegie Hall in 2015
© Christopher Smith

There was an evident symmetry in the two parts of Stephan Hough’s recital. On a night when a rare lunar event, a “super blue blood Moon”, mesmerized sky watchers around the world, the pianist started the evening with “Clair de lune” from Suite bergamasque, echoing his choice in a Prélude, La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, right after intermission. The two books of Debussy’s Images, played in reverse order, were the center of each half, followed by Schumann’s C major Fantasy, a three-part sonata just not in name and, respectively, Beethoven’s Appassionata.

The qualities of Hough’s pianism, always reigning a luxuriant sound with control and clarity, were evident from the very beginning. The ever-popular “Clair de lune”, a ubiquitous encore in many a recital, was all about restraint, without any attempt to milk listeners’ sympathy. In a yin-yang play, spaces between phrases became as important as the notes themselves. The same rhythmical integrity and almost always conservative use of the pedal characterized the Prélude. Debussy’s oeuvre is evidently a body of work for which Stephen Hough has great affinity, the pianist always striving to bring forward the amazing Modernism that imbues this music. One could have wished for a more discernible differentiation in mood between the miniatures that make up the two books of Images, but details were always wonderfully etched out with fluidity and pithiness. Goldfish in Poissons d’or moved around in swirls and sudden stops. The water droplets in Reflets dans l’eau were clearly delineated. The Asian air in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut was evocative without being overbearing. The bells in Cloches à travers les feuilles came in and out of focus behind a shimmering leaves tapestry.

Not that fortissimos were missing, but Schumann’s Fantasie sounded in Hough’s version less romantically effusive and more subdued. Contrasts seemed to have their sharp edges clipped. The fanfare-like first bars were not deafening. The expansive, noble and love-evoking first movement theme, played in the right hand, floated beautifully over the left’s swirling and surging waves of semiquavers. The difficult wide leaps of the second part were not treated as heroic feats of arms but as potential question marks; on the contrary, the quieter, pensive moments were underlined both here and in the Langsam getragen. The music – with its audacious, unpredictable harmonic shifts, with its dreamlike character, with its fragmented phrases in search of direction – did indeed sound Debussian.

Eager to capture the stormy nature of Beethoven’s Appassionata, Hough poured fire almost indiscriminately into the Allegro assai, even in its Apollonian moments. The set of variations in the Andante con moto was also played at a brisker pace than usual. The breakneck, manic speed of the Presto coda was too much even for Hough’s adept fingers. The result was muddy. Surprisingly or not, the preceding Allegro ma non troppo reminded listeners the perpetuum mobile in Mouvement, the last segment of the first book of Debussy’s Images.

Hough offered two encores full of the same pianistic sensuality that permeated most of the evening’s music: The “Posthumous Variation V”  from Schumann’s Symphonic Études, Op. 13 and Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major. Despite the unrelenting, Florestan-evoking fury in Beethoven’s Op. 53, Eusebius’s nostalgia prevailed.