Stephen, I still love you but . . .

September 17, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The greatest challenge in Stephen Hough’s life must be living up to his own legend, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.


Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough

As a polymath, Hough is in a class of his own, He writes, composes, paints and plays the piano all with astonishing skill. A Steinway keyboard beneath his fingers, his superfluid technique and deeply considered interpretations have led to him being hailed as ‘the pianists’ pianist’. He has recorded more than 50 CDs containing a great variety of music, from the standard classical repertoire to wistful transcriptions of songs my grandmother loved.

Little wonder that his concert in the Sydney Recital Hall was a sell-out. I had been savouring this recital above all others in the 2014 piano series. But when he strode onto the stage I was suddenly aware of the pressure he would be under to perform up to ridiculously high expectations. In my case, I wanted to soar – but didn’t.

Hough’s programs always have a shape to them. In this case he placed a substantial Debussy bookend either side of the four Chopin Ballades, which were divided down the middle by intermission. This was a pleasing juxtaposition and one that should have worked better that it did.

Debussy’s La plus que lente – Valse provided a tasty entrée and enabled Hough to warm up on something not too demanding. Debussy’s Estampes followed, showing that Hough is very much at home with Debussy’s tonal and technical demands, playing pianissimo passages with rare delicacy. But while all the notes were there, the lushness and the subtleties were in surprisingly short supply. Did I expect too much? Maybe, but Hough is such a master of colour, I wanted to hear the three pieces like you might taste ripe fruit.

And so to the Chopin Ballades, a high point in Chopin’s already sublime contribution to piano music. I’d heard (and seen on film) Hough dispatch these with an outstanding combination of technical finesse and zest, but not so at this recital. The Ballades are generally well known to audiences, so that a pianist playing them is more exposed than presenting lesser-known works.

Hough began at No 2, with its 6/8 introspective introduction. He upped the tempo to a bouncy dance pace when I was wanting balm before the storm of the right hand forte descending figures. While that may have been a matter of personal taste I couldn’t abide the blurring of the technically demanding passages in this and the other three Ballades. I had the impression that Hough was not enjoying playing them. He did melt me momentarily in the middle of the fourth but when it came to the giant broken double arpeggios near the finale I heard hard trying, and quite a few misses, rather than virtuosity.

Chopin over, Debussy returned with the Children’s Corner Suite. Here Hough was not so stressed and achieved some magic in what are simply scored but difficult-to- bring-off pieces.

The last programmed piece was L’Isle joyeuse and Hough was almost back on the pedestal I’d made for him. I revelled in his control of rich forces and his unhurried virtuosity in what is still a technically demanding piece

I wouldn’t normally talk about encores but the three that Stephen Hough offered were superb and I wondered where he’d been all evening because this was the pianist I’d come to hear. I won’t forget his Chopin Nocturne. It tugged at the heart.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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