There are very few musicians who could lay claim to a MacArthur Fellowship, and even fewer pianists, but then it seems that Stephen Hough is no ordinary pianist: writer, composer and recognised polymath, Mr Hough’s phenomenal playing skills still find time to shine alongside his many other extraordinary talents, and his performance at this recital was no exception. The programme was packed full of concert-hall favourites, with one of Hough’s own pieces thrown in for good measure, and every virtuosic display (and there were indeed many) was handled with precision and meaningful intention, never just a flurry of inconsequential notes.

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

Hough’s own piece was, ironically, the only piece which he played from the score, and as soon as the complex and intricate harmonies began to sweep round the Barbican, it was easy to see why. Hough’s Piano Sonata no. 2, “Notturno luminoso” is a one-movement sonata based on three elements; brightness (sharps), darkness (flats) and naturals. The opening chords, layering voluminously in the pedal, glared like neon lights, brash and enticing. The second section was tumultuous, swirling agitatedly in search of resolution. The third combined the themes of the former two sections with a lacy filigree-like accompaniment in the upper register (and a highly unexpected moment when Hough took to banging the piano with a fist like a tempestuous child). Truthfully, as an audience member, it was hard to appreciate on listening alone that any one part of the composition was based purely around sharps or flats as pointed out by the programme – while it was interesting to understand Hough’s intellectual standpoint when composing, it did not impact significantly on the aural experience. But the concepts which these ideas represented did come across clearly to the audience nonetheless, and the piece was clearly characterful in every section.

The other “night-pieces” on offer were Chopin’s two Nocturnes, Op. 27. Interestingly, in the first of them (in C sharp minor), Hough gave far more attention to the left hand than the melody in the beginning, and it proved to be incredibly insightful, the rocking accompaniment figures becoming a solid base on which to pin the haunting yet delicate melody, as opposed to the monotonous drone that it is sometimes subjected to becoming. The individual melody lines were brought out more later in the piece, and each strand sang with individual clarity. The second nocturne (D flat major) started with meaningful purpose and maintained it throughout. Neither of the nocturnes suffered from the languid, overdone rubato we sometimes wrongly associate with Chopin; Hough played with direction and purpose from the outset.

The two larger-scale pieces ended each of the respective halves: Brahms’ Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor and Schumann’s Carnaval. The Brahms was bold and striking throughout, suppressed yearning and despair seeping through the very seams of the music under Hough’s hands. The first Allegro’s strident chords filled the hall with ease, the Scherzo bounding with resonance and depth. The first Andante could have been allowed a little more room to breathe in the opening bars – it wasn’t that the tempo was too fast so much as that there wasn’t enough poetry to compensate for the chosen speed – but Hough soon settled into the movement and allowed the line to become more pliable. The second Andante (the Intermezzo) was poignant and pained, the final movement an abrupt unfolding of the agitation that had plagued beneath the surface for the entire sonata. Each of the movements was handled admirably individually, and the entire work felt connected and considered with great artistry.

Hough’s performance of Carnaval was, however, the highlight of the night. Every single piece emanated character vibrantly. The “Préamble” rang triumphantly to announce the opening; the unusual rhythmic features of “Eusebius” were presented seamlessly; “Pantalon et Colombine” chased each other tirelessly around the ballroom. The rhythmic interjections in “Arlequin” were a little over-emphasised and thus lost a little of the charm, but on the whole, each of the pieces were tasteful but vivid in their representations. By the time we reached the final “Marche des ‘Davidsbündler’ contre les Philistins”, it really felt as if we had met each of the individual characters, and the quasi-patriotic sweep of the march brought the piece, and the concert, to a roaring finish.

Hough’s encore was an interesting choice: an arrangement of Das Alte Lied from the Orson Welles film The Third Man. A charming and refreshing way to finish a fairly meaty programme, the mellifluous vocal line and the tongue-in-cheek chromatic drooping in the accompaniment roused even more rapturous applause from the audience, and deservedly so. The programme was a joy from start to finish, and Hough’s playing brought it to life with passion and originality.