Mark Gresham | 25 NOV 2020
Spivey Hall presented its first concert stream of the 2020-21 season on Sunday afternoon: a solo performance by pianist Stephen Hough that was decidedly rooted in the late 19th-century culture of the modern piano. Serendipitously, the date of the stream’s debut was also Hough’s birthday.
The video of Hough’s performance, entirely absent spoken words before or between pieces, was recorded sometime in early summer at Henry Wood Hall, an orchestral rehearsal and recording studio in Trinity Church Square, Southwark, London – formerly Holy Trinity Church. Exactly when (whether June or July), Hough did not seem to recall offhand in a transatlantic Zoom conversation with Sam Dixon, executive and artistic director of Spivey Hall. Although the performance was not recorded at there, it was Spivey Hall which created all of the encapsulating video materials within which the uninterrupted London video was framed for viewing.
It’s hardly a surprising collaboration. Hough has been a guest performer at Spivey Hall on many occasions over its 30 years of existence. His last performance there was in Nov. 2018, a solo recital which included music by Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy, and the world premiere of his own Pianos Sonata No. 4. Hough also helped select “Robert” – Spivey Hall’s second and most recent Hamburg Steinway acquisition, which followed “Clara.”
Up first was Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of the “Chaconne” from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 by Johann Sebastian Bach.
It is far less Bach than it is Bach as seen through the lens of the late 19th century, in all its bombastic drama. Busoni’s transcription appears to attempt to capture the character of the music being played on a pipe organ or by large symphony orchestra, within the confines of what a modern concert grand piano is physically capable. All of which is fine with Hough, who said in the pre-concert interview with Dixon that he doesn’t hate Bach but has not yet been “seduced by him.” Clearly, Hough preferes to view the “Chaconne” through Busoni-colored glasses.
On the one hand, I can understand that point of view, especially in the context of a program where the companion works are grandiose piano works by Schumann and Liszt. There is a certain volumetric consistency of texture between these work on the one hand, but a distinctive difference of substance on the other.
In my youth, I had heard Busoni’s transcription before having heard the “Chaconne” in its original form for solo violin. But I was already steeped in a panoply of Bach’s keyboard works from an early age, practicing them as a teenage student, and also exposed to transcriptions as far afield as the electronic realizations of Wendy (at the time Walter) Carlos, as well as transcriptions for brass or large orchestra. Ultimately my own perspective is that the essence of Bach endures regardless of the act of transcription. Not being a purist in this regard, I happen to like Busoni’s 19th-entury rimagining.
In the same way Hough has not yet been seduced by Bach, I have not been seduced by the music of Robert Schumann. Don’t hate it, it just does not captivate me. Hough followed the Busoni with Schumann’s Fantasie, Op. 17 in C major, which holds my attention less than some other Schumann works, the smaller morsels being somewhat tastier for my personal palette, such as the overly familiar “Träumerei,” No. 7 of his Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (“Scenes from Childhood”), which I must assume was an encore, though not exactly indicated as such, as it was absent from Spivey Hall’s much welcomed online program notes by Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn – one appreciated element of context that Spivey Hall provided as presenter over and above Hough’s no-nonsense, non-verbal video of the performance. That encapsulating context demonstrates why presenters like Spivey Hall need exist not only for live concerts but also now for video streaming: Spivey’s “added value” content and framework, especially the Hough-Dixon conversation, provided real “added value” to Hough’s London-filmed core.
When doing “big hand 19th-entury piano works” in such a recital it’s hard to leave out music of Franz Liszt. Hough chose to play Liszt’s “Funérailles” – No. 7 of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and the ever-popular “Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” setting up the gravely tolling great bells of the first with its diabolical (even diabolically alluring and whimsical) fancies. Schumann’s brief “Träumerei” then offered a suddenly introspective close to what was an exceptionally extroverted program. ■