Stephen Hough, Piano
Carnegie Hall, January 30, 2018
Debussy – “Clair de lune” from Suite bergamasque
Debussy – Images, Book II
Schumann – Fantasy in C Major
Debussy – “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune” from Préludes, Book II
Debussy – Images, Book I
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”
Schumann – Posthumous Variation V (Moderato) from Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 (1873 version)
Chopin – Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2
Stephen Hough remains one of the most engaging personalities in the world of virtuoso pianists. He makes his wide range of interests—literary, visual, and religious—known to the world at large with grace and modesty, out of a genuine desire to contribute things that others may find enjoyable or helpful. He is even able to compose pieces, mostly of a light nature, which he sometimes interjects into his concert programs. Early in his career he built a reputation with his impressive technique, as he built a list of outstanding recordings of forgotten concerti and solo pieces which were too difficult for others to learn for the rare occasions on which they would be called for in concert. In recent years he has turned more to established classics in his concert programs, approaching them with a consistent style founded on attractive tone and an ear to the coherence he finds in the works he plays.
I quite enjoyed hearing him play a few years ago in smaller halls, like 92Y and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, but have since been disappointed with his concerts in the larger space of Stern Auditorium at Carnegie, which, as beautiful as its acoustics are, presents special challenges to pianists who are new to it. There were perhaps more pianists in earlier generations who played comfortably there. In recent years, I have been especially aware of how different players deal with the grand public space, some with gratifying success.
The problem with Hough’s playing, however, is not so much that as the limitations of his interpretative approach. I enjoyed the concert under review more than the last one I heard at Carnegie a few years ago, but I found myself frustrated with what I perceived as Hough’s skirting of the deeper challenges of the works he took on, most likely because he doesn’t see them, rather than from any superficiality or cynicism in his character. I have heard richer and more interesting performances of Debussy, Schumann, and Beethoven from other pianists over the past year than Mr. Hough attempted on this evening. For example, another Englishman, Ian Hobson, is currently traversing the piano works of Ravel and Debussy, and the experience of his concert series is that of an exploration. Mr. Hobson never loses focus on the details of Debussy’s writing, and through this he finds contrasts, drama, story-telling, and poetry. Marc-André Hamelin played the Images, Book I, without sacrificing precision, the moment, nuance, or atmosphere—above all, without falling into the trap of the pedal. A brilliant young American, Amy Gustafson, pursued aspects of Debussy’s writing similar to Hobson’s, but to such an extent that she seemed to dwell inside the works she played, as if they were undiscovered caves full of glittering stalactites of endless colors. Stephen Porter is a somewhat older pianist who has made a speciality of Debussy with impressive insight. Click here for an account of his revelatory performance of the Préludes, Books I and II.
Mr. Hough, by contrast, offered heavily pedalled, rather generalized interpretations of Debussy’s Images, each book preceded by a single piece, as a kind of overture. The concert began with the beloved “Clair de lune,” which began with such exquisite tones, that the work seemed magical…but after a page of this, one realized that nothing was really happening as the beautiful chords passed in succession. Hough concentrated on color and atmosphere to the neglect of everything else, including, I think, what is most unique and important in Debussy. The rest of the Debussy was the same (…the same…the same…) until “Mouvement” virtually forced him to observe the changes and contrasts which dominate the lambent flow and shifting energies of the music.
Most of Schumann’s Fantasy in C seemed dead in the water, undermined by a lack of contrast and direction…and too much of that damned pedalling! The second movement was drowned in it, and the resultant flaccidity was an agony to listen to. The music came halfway to life in the last movement, when Hough seemed to bring more concentration to it here and there. The generality of the performance made it seem as if there were some grasp of unity in it, but in fact Hough didn’t penetrate sufficiently into harmony and texture to make this meaningful.
The Schumann may have been the most frustrating performance in the program, but the “Appassionata” flowed by in the same spirit. Pavaali Jumppanen, in his daring performance of the work last November, understood that it is a work, not only of contrasts, but of surprises. Beethoven gives equal balance to the structure of sonata form and bold shifts of dynamics, harmonic progression, and dramatic gesture, and Jumppanen understood this and gave it its full due to the point of challenging our preconceptions about the work. Some in his audience were not convinced, but I was, and I found it thrilling. Hough polished off all the edges and made Beethoven’s revolutionary sonata as tame, contained, and beautiful (often just pretty) as possible. The variations in particular fell prey to the clichéd gesture of stretching out the approach to a cadence and inserting a tiny pause before it, as if to remind us, “Isn’t this beautiful?” Forgive me for having been bored by Stephen Hough’s overpolished, predictable run-through.
The most successful performance of the evening was, I thought, the Chopin Op. 9 Nocturne in E Flat Major. This music fared well with Hough’s quest for “beauty” in itself. It’s also familar enough and short enough, that we don’t get anxious for a solid musical event to happen.
I regret to find it necessary to be so negative about the work of a musician who has earned so much respect from his public—and this was unblemished for his audience at Carnegie Hall, who applauded loudly. Some of my own musical heroes, like Rudolf Serkin and Alfred Brendel, have gone through a stale period in their playing. Serkin even took a sabbatical from public performance to work through it. Stephen Hough is intelligent and sensitive enough to penetrate further below the surface of great music. If he has slipped over the challenges of Beethoven, Schumann, and Debussy, he has created even steeper challenges for himself.