An evening of music for piano and voice by pianist and polymath Stephen Hough, performed by The Prince Consort, with Hough himself playing in the second half, promised to be something intriguing and special, especially as the programme included the world premiere of Hough’s song cycle Dappled Things, dedicated to John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall.

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

In setting poetry to music, Hough is working within a fine English song tradition that includes composers such as Purcell, Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Britten, and indeed there were fleeting musical glimpses of these composers within Hough’s works. In the opening piece, Herbstlieder, there were also hints of those two great German composers of song, Schubert and Schumann, in both mood and music: set to poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, the cycle is a meditation on themes loosely connected with autumn (the days drawing in, regret and reflection, falling leaves, the end of fruitfulness – wholly appropriate for a concert at the start of the weekend when the clocks go back) and the music is impressionistic, thoughtful, intimate and introspective. But the final bar of the last song resolves to a major triad, a hint that spring will come, even if autumn has not yet passed. Originally premiered by baritone Jacques Imbrailo at the Oxford Lieder Festival, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston sang the work on this occasion, bringing a passionate warmth to the text. She was sensitively accompanied by Alisdair Hogarth on piano, who made much of the music’s colour and character. I should mention at this point that I was sitting in the balcony at the Wigmore, which afforded a wonderfully rich quality of sound and projection from the stage.

Dappled Things, composed in 2014, sets poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins and Oscar Wilde, poets who at first may seem unlikely bedfellows. But as Hough points out in the programme notes, they were almost exact contemporaries with a similar sexual orientation and aesthetic, and who had a particular fascination with Roman Catholicism, also one of Hough’s preoccupations. The title of the cycle is taken from the opening line of Hopkins’ Pied Beauty (“Glory be to God for dappled things…”), and the songs explore themes such as death and consolation, remembrance (Requiescat, a tender memorial to Wilde’s sister who died from meningitis), unconventionality, the contrast between Papal ceremony and Christ’s simple death (Easter), innocence and corruption (The Harlot’s House). The music is whimsical and witty (there is a delightful reference to Chopsticks in the jaunty The Harlot’s House, where at one point the piano part almost comes to a full stop as the pianist appears to work out the next notes in the sequence), soulful and richly coloured. Here, vocal lines and poetry are inextricably bound, crafted as a single entity, and each work is a gem in its own right with vivid and expressive writing for the piano to complement the voice. Imbrailo succeeded in bringing out the unique character of each song with lyricism and drama.

Jacques Imbrailo © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Jacques Imbrailo
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The second half brought the whole Prince Consort to the stage to sing Hough’s Three Grave Songs and Other Love Songs, a cycle written especially for them. Hough joined Alisdair Hogarth at the piano. Two slow, tender songs exploring universal ideas of death and remembrance bookend a delightfully boisterous setting of Thomas Hardy’s cruelly comic poem about spending the money for an aunt’s tombstone on drinking and dancing. Meanwhile, in Other Love Songs, the wider concept of love – familial, forbidden/homosexual love, divine, unreciprocated, and even an abstract love – is explored in eight settings of poems by Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Laurence Hope, and AE Housman, together with sacred texts by Julian of Norwich and St John’s Gospel. As in Dappled Things, the choice of texts perhaps reflects Hough’s own extra-musical preoccupations, and in keeping with The Prince Consort’s penchant for unusual combinations of voice and piano and the theme of “other kinds of love”, Hough wrote the piano accompaniment for three hands instead of two. The songs showcase different voices and combinations of voices, and contrast wistful meditation (When I have Passed Away) with exoticism, an Indian scale and strummed piano strings (Kashmiri Love Song), tenderness, music hall idioms and violence (The colour of his hair) and exuberant ecstasy (All Shall be Well), a spirited duet sung by Christina Gansch and Jennifer Johnston.

Jennifer Johnston © Gisela Schenker
Jennifer Johnston
© Gisela Schenker

Simon, son of John is a tender conversation between Christ and Simon Peter during which Christ asks him three times if he loves him. Hough corresponds this with Simon Peter’s subsequent triple denial, represented by three glittering piano “fanfares”, redolent of Olivier Messiaen’s “flashes” of ecstasy and revelation. The song concludes with soprano and mezzo-soprano singing the Agnus Dei of the mass and reinforces the message that “love conquers all”.

The encore was Hough’s transcription of Danny Boy, which brought all together in unison and some elegantly lyrical part writing. It was the perfect close to an evening of intriguing and startling gems – Hough’s witty, intricate, intimate and beautifully arresting art songs.