William Ford | 4 APR 2023
International superstar pianist Stephen Hough brought his special brand of genius to the stage at Spivey Hall for a Saturday afternoon recital. Hough is known for his technical mastery, refined musical expression, and diverse repertoire; all three were on display in this wonderful concert event.
The program began with a work by a little-known composer, Federico Mompou (1893-1987). Mompou was trained in piano at the Paris Conservatory under Gabriel Faure. Being a shy man, he limited his career to composition and only played in small private salon-like settings. Many of his works were unknown until his widow found a large collection in his files. Hough played Mompou’s first published work Magical Songs, a work with a clear stylistic lineage from Faure, as well as Debussy. It is an introspective and reflective work that incorporates his memories of the sounds of bells from his father’s bell factory. Hough played with his usual strong sense of phrasing and tonal color.
The second work was Debussy’s Estampes (“Prints”), published in 1903, a set of three pieces for piano. It begins with “Pagodes,” a work inspired by Debussy’s fascination with Asian culture. It opens with a pentatonic scale used frequently in traditional Chinese music. It also incorporates bell-like tones, parallel fifths, and impressions of the sound of a gamelan orchestra. The second section, “Evening in Granada,” conjures up reflections of Flamenco-style strumming on a Spanish guitar. The final section, “Gardens in the Rain,” uses fast, syncopated rhythms to inspire thoughts of raindrops falling on leaves. The link between the works of Mompou and Debussy was clearly forged by Hough’s thoughtful curation of these first two pieces on the Spivey program.
Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 5 provided a showcase for Hough’s extraordinary technical as well as musical skills. This work has been described as one of the most difficult in piano literature. It consists of a single movement with three main sections, each characterized by its own distinct mood. Hough’s tackled this fiendishly difficult music with ease; he never resorts to flamboyant body physicality to add drama to his playing. His arms and hands are sufficient to provide the muscularity to create a powerful performance of this challenging and intriguing work.
The next work was Hough’s self-composed Partita (2016). Interestingly, this was the only piece on the program that Hough had not committed to memory; rather, he played from the score. The work is a set of variations on a theme, and Hough says it pays homage to English cathedral organs, Bach, Ravel, and of all people, Federico Mompou! But from time to time, the work has hints of the cabaret with subtle jazz-infuse passages.
The program continues with Franz Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets, written between 1835 and 1839. The sonnets referenced were written in the 14th century and are considered some of the greatest in Italian literature; they are explorations of the power of love, longing, and the tragedy of unrequited love. The music is full of Romantic arpeggios and mournful melodies. It ranges from the subdued to the bombastic, and Hough shied away from none of it.
The final work on the program was Liszt’s Dante Sonata. It has two sections: the first is titled “Inferno,” full of ominous sounds, dissonant chords, and complex rhythms. The second section is titled “Purgatorio,” which is more redemptive in character, with more lyricism and an overall brighter sound. Liszt built tension throughout, only to have it explode in sound, followed by a peaceful passage at the end. This piece is Lisztian Romanticism at its biggest and boldest, and Hough, a Liszt specialist, mines every bit of emotion captured in the music.
At the end of the main program, the Spivey crowd of about 450 erupted with cheers and applause. Hough was called back to the stage numerous times. Appreciating the adulation, he played an encore of Mompou’s Children in a Garden, a lovely, quiet, heavily impressionistic work that was delightful in every way. Again, the audience rose to its feet and returned Hough to the stage several times more. In recognition of the affection shown, Hough played another encore of a Chopin Nocturne.
More cheering, and finally, the lights came on, and an afternoon of astounding piano virtuosity came to an end. This was one of those rare concerts where a diverse program played by a master musician delivered a compelling and memorable event. It was, without a doubt, a peak musical experience. Thanks to all at Spivey Hall for having the brilliant Stephen Hough on their stage. ■