Review: Pianist Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough performed at Portland State University.

Stephen Hough performed at Portland State University. Photo: Sim Cannety-Clarke.

By JEFF WINSLOW

The British have a reputation for being calm and collected, forthright yet subtle, emotionally understated, with a firm grasp of logistics and planning, doggedly pursuing and never losing sight of the ultimate goal. To the extent this is so, Stephen Hough is the quintessential British pianist. All these qualities were on display during his performance at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall Monday evening, which was this season’s foray into solo pianism by Portland presenter Friends of Chamber Music.

They are qualities well-suited to his opening number, ironically by an Austrian, Arnold Schoenberg’s six futuristic op. 19 micro-miniatures. Though an impassioned interpretation is possible (Glenn Gould recorded one), the 1911 set’s extreme compression of frequently dramatic utterance hit home thanks to Hough’s rather dry presentation, and a mastery of touch that seemed to assign a different volume level to each tiny detail. The composer’s challenge to the extravagant Romantic esthetic of his day could hardly have been clearer, along with some of the conflict he felt about that challenge.

The ironies continued as Hough’s cool yet flexible and ultimately lyrical approach charmingly served three obscure piano works by composers synonymous with extreme German Romanticism: the Richards – Strauss and Wagner – and Anton Bruckner. The most obscure, Bruckner’s 1868  Remembrance, showed hardly any trace of his symphonic style. It did, however, build to a grand and resonant climax, which showed that Hough is a master of much more than understatement.

The gloves came off again in the opening Capriccio of one of Johannes Brahms’ well-known sets of late piano masterworks, the op. 116 Fantasies. Yet here, and even more so in the whirlwind Capriccio that finishes off the set, an unsettling subplot began to develop. At the time, I merely noted that the most turbulent numbers seemed a little pale, a little prone to loss of definition (like what happens to your photos when you don’t arrange for the right lighting). I wondered if these were not really Hough’s cup of tea. They do seethe in a barely contained way that seems un-British somehow. Brahms was a famously difficult and contradictory person, sensitive, yet capable of harsh words even to his closest friends – indeed, usually to his closest friends. (Acquaintances such as tradespeople, landlords, drivers, even prostitutes universally reported he was a pleasant person, not to mention a generous tipper.) While Hough remained well-focused on the goal – the overall dramatic arc – many striking, emotionally fraught details which open a way into this dark, tortured side of Brahms were glossed over. This didn’t seem to result from the false stereotype of Brahms the “Classic” vs. the prevailing Romantics. Hough is too smart for that, and to prove it, his performance of the three Intermezzi which immediately precede the final Capriccio were poetic in phrasing, in tone, in tempo, in all pianistic resources, and each according to their own very different characters.

Immediately after intermission I put all thoughts of national stereotypes aside. Hough came out with guns blazing, figuratively speaking, in his most spectacular performance of the night, the first of Frederic Chopin’s four Ballades – large-scale works which, despite their frequent easy lyricism, cost the composer many years of effort before he was satisfied with them. Like the other three, the first one begins quietly, almost offhandedly, but in a serious manner that develops into a series of sighing phrases. As in the first half, Hough was a master of this rhetoric, but now his mastery extended into rougher territory as the music gained in drama and intensity. He helped himself out by adopting moderate tempos, never scampering, as he brought out many a delicious detail. There is one lyrical reprise late in the composition, following hard on the heels of a galloping scale which seems to crash to the earth, that I wish he had let breathe and sing instead of powering through. But I could hardly argue with the final page’s flawless yet gripping denouement: desperate, anguished, brutal, and defiant by turns. The transition between desperation and anguish was particularly striking as he launched another crashing scale in a near-agony of slow motion. The guns blazed one last time in a cathartic climax.

The audience burst into wild applause. I was afraid Hough would insist on playing the works as a set, and be annoyed by the interruption, but if so, he gave no sign. He quickly rose, and calmly bowed before turning to the next challenge.

Unfortunately, at this point he seemed to run short of ammo. While the F major sections of the schizoid F major/A minor Ballade were deft and intimate, the violent minor-key sections seemed beyond his control, and I even got the feeling that, towards the end, he just put the pedal down and tried to get it over with as fast as possible. It was an extreme manifestation of what had disturbed me in some of the Brahms.

On top of all the other difficulties, Chopin has a wicked trick up his sleeve. The final climax rages up to the very edge of a cliff, but then all resistance suddenly collapses, as what had been a carefree tune returns in dark minor, barely dragging itself along, before just plain giving up. Hough aced its last depressed gasp, but whether because of the shock of the sudden quiet, the inescapable gloom of it, or the audience’s savvy – or all of the above – not a single patter of applause was heard.

One phenomenon might have contributed to an off night. This still being cold season, there was a fair amount of coughing and sneezing, even in what might have otherwise been magical moments. I myself had the bad luck to sit next to “the mad sniffler,” who kept up an irregular but robust nasal commentary throughout the concert, unfettered by hand or tissue. A seasoned pro like Hough would normally shrug it off, and he didn’t respond overtly, but everyone has his limits.

Whatever was going on, he was no doubt relieved to take up the singing line that opens the relatively sunny A-flat major Ballade. Songs, dances, mercurial runs, and poignant harmonies flashed by delightfully. But while both it and the following monumental F minor Ballade were kept well shaped and focused, it seemed something had been lost which couldn’t be retrieved, and Hough couldn’t quite bring his performance back to the overall level of the first one.

Still, there was magic. Two passages in the F minor stood out in particular. One, after two rounds of the plaintive arabesques of the main theme had their say, featured ghostly octaves stealing through the left hand and descending into the depths. Hough’s spine-tingling rendition was an object lesson to any number of willful hotshots who seem to think any passage in octaves is an excuse for showing off. When the theme returns for a third round, the arabesques are joined by dense figuration skittering through both hands, and it’s all too easy (as I know from rueful personal experience) to let it turn into a mishmash of “too many notes.” Hough maintained perfect control, clearly distinguishing each line, yet in no way losing the essential lyricism of the theme.

I couldn’t help but wind down with some feeling of disappointment. I’d heard much brilliant and sensitive playing, but also some things I’d just as soon forget. The first two encores, by British 19th century cult composer Granville Bantock and Austrian-born Russian ballet composer Ludwig Minkus, were charming and tossed off beautifully, as encores should be, but neither was particularly substantial.

Just when we thought that was going to be that, Hough strode out again, smilingly raised a finger to say “one more,” and put across one of the sweetest, most polished and yet tender performances of Chopin’s F# major Nocturne (op. 15 #2) I’ve ever heard or hope to hear. All of those solid qualities that I archly ascribed to the British were again on full display, and in addition, a warmth which buoyed my steps and gave a bit of a glow to the flowering trees as I walked out into the first real spring evening of the year.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who has spent many a glorious hour wrestling with the Chopin Ballades and late Brahms piano works in his own modest way. As a composer, he is in awe of the F minor Ballade in particular.

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