Thursday evening saw Stephen Hough give a thoughtfully-curated recital at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, home to a well-regarded classical piano series since the 1970s. Hough is a regular guest on campus, having first appeared in the series in 1985. The program opened in unfamiliar territory with the Four Bagatelles of Alan Rawsthorne. This is a work which Hough recorded some two decades ago on an album of English piano music, a repertoire in which he is often without peer.

Stephen Hough
© Jiyang Chen

Written in 1938 for Gordon Greene – who would later become one of Hough’s teachers – the Bagatelles are each based on the same ten-note theme. Just over a minute apiece, they manage to say much in little. The percussiveness of the opening was tempered by the wistfulness of the succeeding piece, and the closing Lento was perhaps the finest in its languid nostalgia.

In lesser hands, Schumann’s 35-minute Kreisleriana can meander and wander, but Hough’s reading was of singular direction and purpose in spite of the work’s kaleidoscope of moods. In the commanding opening, the darkly passionate material was given quite a workout. At times I found his tone a bit harsh, but this evened out as he better adjusted to the instrument he was provided. This is music of enormously wide contrasts, embodying the opposing Florestan and Eusebius personas Schumann crafted, perhaps in reflection of his bipolar condition. Hough was keen to emphasize these contrasts, authentically capturing its mercurial temperaments. In the sharp rhythmic gestures that punctuated, Hough used limited pedal to yield a strikingly dry tone, saving the more liberal pedaling for the lyrical sections in the interest of further maximizing contrast. Another highlight came in the fugato passage of the penultimate movement wherein the pianist achieved a pointed clarity, in no way compromised by its breathless vigor. 

The recital’s second half mirrored the first in pairing a more contemporary English work with a Romantic one. In this case, the English composer was Hough himself, who has enthusiastically donned the mantle of the composer-pianist. Hough presented his recent (2019) Partita. A five-movement conception, Hough explained that the outer movements (Overture and Toccata respectively) were inspired by the cathedral organ, while the inner movements (Capriccio and Canción y Danza I & II) are based on the interval of a fifth. Moreover, Canción y Danza is an explicit homage to Federico Mompou, another composer whose body of work Hough is closely associated. The opening was bright and energetic, and the colorful harmonic palette with which Hough worked was utterly captivating. The Mompou-esque movements were rather more meditative, though not without spiky contrasts, and the piece culminated in a big-boned finish that echoed the brilliance of the beginning.

Four works by Chopin completed the recital, starting with a warmly lyrical account of the Ballade no. 3. A pair of nocturnes followed, and Hough wonderfully brought out their ineffable allure that makes them amongst the most beloved works in the repertoire. Hough’s recent recording is a survey of the nocturnes, one of no less than six albums he recorded during lockdown. The Scherzo no. 2 closed, brimming with its requisite drama. As an encore, Hough offered Mompou’s Canción y Danza 1, dreamy and evocative.