Stephen Hough’s solo piano recital had an immediate appeal even before the first note sounded. The programme’s design followed perfect symmetry: an individual work and a shorter cycle by Claude Debussy, followed by Frédéric Chopin’s Four Ballades, neatly divided by the interval before finishing with another pair of short Debussy cycle and individual composition. Not one heroic masterpiece or “Grand Sonata” in sight; rather, a series of exquisite character pieces by two Paris-bound composers, featuring some of the finest examples of musical poetry, offering perfumes of times long since gone.

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

This careful planning showed the hallmarks of a thinking musician; why, nothing less was expected from Stephen Hough, whose reputation as a 21st century polymath is as often discussed in interviews as it is impressive. I had never had a chance to hear him in a live performance before, although I have read many of his writings and watched him in master classes and filmed recitals. To pinpoint the possible reasons why I felt underwhelmed by his recital would be difficult and nor is that my task; but in the end, no matter how much I had hoped to be astounded by his pianistic imagination, his judiciously executed, measured playing left me somewhat unmoved.

It did not help matters that the opening item of the concert, Debussy’s enigmatically titled La plus que lente, evokes in me a rather different sound and character from that in Hough’s interpretation. This unashamedly nostalgic waltz, not unlike Satie’s famous song, Je te veux, can conjure images of a Parisienne bar, filled with cigar smoke, ladies of dubious occupation and weary customers dreaming of a better world. Certainly, the marking at the beginning of the piece, Molto rubato con morbidezza suggests something out of the ordinary. Hough’s playing revealed some rubato indeed but overall, it gave the impression of a simple, almost classical work, neat and lovely without the sensation of lingering cigar smoke.

His intention appeared to be to continue seamlessly with the three movements of Estampes (a fine idea, underlined by the coincidental harmonic proximity of La plus que lent’s ending and the beginning of the first “Estampe”, Pagodes). This was however disrupted by the vague applause from the audience, ignoring the artist’s clear body language. That splendid cycle of Estampes, Debussy’s musical postcards from exotic locales around the world, felt more convincing if somewhat enervated. Hough is clearly not a bells-and-whistles showman (neither was Sviatoslav Richter, nothing wrong with that) but his largely restrained demeanour on stage seemed to effect the musical execution as well. As a minor example, the famous Rapide passage toward the end of Jardin sous la pluie was fast indeed with clearly articulated notes, rather than flamboyant “waves of sound where you can’t actually see the shapes so clearly” – as the artist said in a recent interview.

Whether Chopin was actually aware that he created a new musical genre when writing his Ballades with their unique harmonic world and often revolutionary changes to the then known musical forms, is hard to say. These much-loved and much-played jewels of the piano repertoire never fail to impress and they didn’t on this occasion either. Hough seemed to feel more empathy with the introverted elements of the Ballades: the brooding, subdued waltz of no. 1 in G minor op 23 or the quiet rubato of no. 3 in A flat major op 47 which almost gave the impression of an intimate conversation between good friends where excessive gestures are meaningless. These beautiful moments would have benefited from starker contrasts of the passionate, at times almost violent outbursts within the same pieces. Albeit faultlessly played, those eruptions felt somewhat controlled, almost restricted; for my taste more vitality would have been more satisfying. Hough’s performance was well under control, no emotional risks were offered and few if any were taken.

Debussy’s Children’s Corner, the best birthday present Papa Claude could have given to his three year old daughter, "Chou-Chou", offers plenty of opportunities to have fun, sing simple ditties, play with dolls and pursue other activities with one’s child – all without leaving the piano keyboard. The serenity of The little shepherd movement was heart-warming here, as was the second movement’s Lullaby. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum and everybody’s favourite Golliwogg’s cake-walk, book-ending the suite would have gained from a wittier, less serious performance. L’Isle joyeuse, another work with autobiographical connotations, was the final item, written in celebration of a joyous summer on the island of Jersey with Debussy’s new partner, the future mother of Chou-Chou.

Several encores finished the concert in rapid succession. In short compositions by Minkus and Grieg, Stephen Hough seemed finally to relax completely and offered some of the most memorable moments of the evening.

***11