I wonder that Stephen Hough has time to practise and play in public the piano. In music, he's also a conductor and a composer (including of a cello concerto and chamber music). He writes poetry, his first novel will be published in a week's time, he's a painter, he's an Honourable Bencher of the Middle Temple, and we have it on the authority of The Economist that he's one of its 20 'living polymaths'. Oh, he's a Led Zeppelin fan, too, and he has a collection of handmade £500 hats which he buys from a milliner in Chicago. But here he was, one of Britain's half-dozen most prominent pianists, adorning the SJE Arts 2018 International Piano Series, now on the way to becoming an Oxford institution. A gratifyingly numerous audience of 325 or so had turned out on a snowy Saturday evening at St John the Evangelist to hear this programme of Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy. Our soloist emerged from the side aisle in the church and sat ponderingly on his stool, a lithe, somewhat monkish figure in his dark grey, Chairman Mao-style suit, before beginning to play.
Debussy's Clair de Lune was the opener, and I reflected on the placing of this little gem of a romantic idyll here at the very start. The last few times I've heard the work it's been in the form of an encore. In fact, Stephen Hough took it at a fair old lick, no doubt wishing to blow away any cobwebs of familiarity clinging to the piece. He ran it into the next piece, the three components of Images, Book 2 (he played Books 1 and 2 in reverse order).
Although his basic tempo for Cloches à travers les feuilles was brisker than the 'lent' [slow] that Debussy asks for, the rendering of the music's interweaving textures was sensitively done, the bells swinging in and out of aural focus. Poissons d’or received a more aggressive, dynamically-charged treatment than Zoltan Kocsis gives on his playing of it on my Philips CD release – had the goldfish been replaced by a river pike? – but Hough's cross-handed hops on the keys were suggestive of the darting of the fish and suggested also that the movement of highly-coloured fish can be revved up far beyond the scope of the goldfish tank in the doctor's waiting room.
The playing of Images, Book 1 after the interval was preceded by La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune from Preludes, Book 2, Debussy perhaps thinking of European pageantry bustling against a tranquil Indian evening. Through the Debussy part of the concert, Hough made conservative use of the pedals. I perhaps slightly missed full differentiation in mood between the miniatures that make up the two books of Images, mainly I think because he was markedly keen to push on. That said, the water droplets in Reflets dans l’eau were clearly delineated, making me think of Renoir and Monet at La Grenouillière.
Hommage à Rameau’s processional flow was played with dignity, whereas the triplets of Mouvement were taken fast, with much crossing of hands and quick dabbing down upon the keys.
For Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 ('Funeral March') the soloist's hitherto notably still, upright posture at the keyboard was transformed into something much more animated. The opening 'grave – doppo movimento' [double time] was taken at speed, and so was the following 'scherzo', technically a dance though hardly a practicable one. The actual funeral march boomed out around the church, and on one or two of the heavy chords Hough rose up off his stool with emotion, the nocturne that is the filling in the funerary sandwich providing a little relief. This music was played in Père Lachaise cemetery in Eastern Paris at Chopin's funeral in 1849, and the elaborate grave, much frequented by visitors, has a marble sculpture of the Muse of Music mourning the composer
In Beethoven's 'Appassionata' Sonata, Hough’s storm-tossed first movement, with its swift changes of pace, had an edge almost of fury as he hammered down with the right hand in the lower register while reaching far into the upper register with the left hand. He took the 'andante' at a brisk clip, then held nothing back in the rip-roaring last movement. No question here of playing safe here in order to be note-perfect.
As his encore, we heard Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, complete with that magical moment at its end where the pianist makes a trill, then a descending scale with the right hand. Hough will be playing substantially this programme at the Royal Festival Hall and at the Barber Institute in Birmingham next month. Audiences there are in for a treat.