Monash University Academy of Performing Arts is to be thanked for presenting this concert by Stephen Hough, the London-based pianist’s only public appearance in Melbourne on this visit. A packed audience at Robert Blackwoood Hall was testament to Hough’s reputation, with Chopin and Debussy further drawcards as being ideal composers for this pianist. (As were Tchaikovsky and others on earlier visits!)
Hough has a distinctive touch which is infused with musicality. He can play very gently and softly, as required in many of the Debussy items on the program, yet find the strength for the powerful Chopin ballades – at times combining these two elements of his style without apparent effort. The first item, Debussy’s La plus que lente – Valse, while an unusual choice to open a recital, was the perfect illustration of Hough’s tenderness of touch, requiring after all that the tempo be “more than slow”. The composer’s Estampes, which followed, gave plenty of scope to impress – and this the pianist did, creating images of pagodas reaching into the sky, the exoticness of an evening in Granada, rain falling in the garden.
Even when in possession of the whole keyboard and playing showy music, Hough has every appearance of being the servant of the score, faithfully conveying the composer’s intentions. Careful pedalling and intelligent phrasing were key (throughout the recital) as was the attention to melody, whatever the “special effects” or mass of sound.
Chopin’s Ballade No.2 in F major, Op.38 began with one of those seemingly simple and harmonious constructions favoured by the composer, a quirk being that it began in F major but soon modulated to a minor key. Another was that the second subject developed the folk song-like theme with quite florid expansion and recapitulation before further pyrotechnics. Yet the overwhelming sense was of Hough’s musicality and almost loving touch.
Having just been presented with a copy of Alan Rusbridger’s book Play it Again, in which The Guardian editor charts a year-long project: to learn and play Chopin’s Ballade No.1, I find myself quite unable to attempt a review of Hough’s performance of it. More knowledgeable people seated near me appeared very happy with this, and the other two Ballades, which came after interval. I did however note Hough’s dexterity in the right hand of No.3 against the power of his left, particularly as the mood of the opening became more pronounced in the development of the work.
Ballade No.4 was reminiscent of one of the composer’s Nocturnes to begin as Hough articulated notes with precision and no loss of feeling, an approach he maintained even as the chords multiplied and were embellished at quite a pace. The spectacular end of this work (after a moment of intense quiet) was a fitting final to the Chopin Ballades as Hough turned again to concluding items by Debussy.
Children’s Corner is a well-loved collection, famous not only for its finale, Golliwogg’s Cake-walk, delivered on this occasion with sprightliness and more than a hint of humour. In fact, the whole suite is infused with amusement, with its stories and “pictures” including, as well as the golliwog, Jimbo the toy elephant. The title is perhaps misleading, as this is music to entertain children, not for them to play. The first, Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, explores the keyboard at speed, and the challenges keep coming.
L’Isle joyeuse, the final work, takes difficulty to another level, as the program notes suggest. Debussy is said to have written to his publisher: “My God! It’s hard to play!” It is a tribute to Stephen Hough that he both gave an unquestionable display of virtuosity yet played with apparent ease so that the audience could both admire and enjoy the music. In this, the performance of the Debussy mirrored the entire concert.
Suzanne Yanko reviewed Stephen Hough’s concert at Robert Blackwood Hall on September 23.
The picture of Stephen Hough is by Sim Canetty-Clarke.
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La plus que lente – Valse
I. Pagodes (Pagodas)
II. La Soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada)
III. Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain)
FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No.2 in F major, Op.38
Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23
Ballade No.3 in A flat major, Op.47
Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52
I. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
II. Jimbo’s Lullaby
III. Sérénade for the doll
IV. The snow is dancing
V. The little shepherd
VI. Golliwogg’s cake-walk