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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Concert Review: Teachable Moments

Stephen Hough returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Stephen Hough makes a point.
Photo from CM Management.
A New York recital by the pianist Stephen Hough is more than a pleasant evening at a concert hall, it is the opportunity to experience one of the most acute musical minds working today. Mr. Hough is a composer, author, and scholar and last Saturday night's Carnegie Hall program, fiercely independent in his approach to traditional repertory and yet grounded in a solid academic understanding of the great works. For his first solo appearance at that venue in two years was a deep delve into the music of two very different Paris-based composers: Frederic Chopin and Claude Debussy.



The concert started with Debussy works, opening with the miniature La plus que lente. Although this is not one of the composer's Etudes, Lente is a study of slow, stately tempos, played with blurred edges and deep, meaningful weight by Mr. Hough. It was followed by the colorful exotica of Estampes ("Prints"). Here the composer uses his revolutionary whole-tone technique to present the listeners with "postcards" from China (Pagodes), Spain (La soirée dans Grenade) and France (Jardins sous la pluie).

Mr. Hough then followed with deeply considered, slightly dry performances of the four Chopin Ballades. These are tripartite works, with contrasts between their outer thematic ideas and middle sections. No. 2 in F is stormy and heroic, with Mr. Hough letting his restraint slip just a bit. No. 1 in G minor, with its elegaic main thematic idea and sense of perpetual motion was thrilling and absorbing, as Mr. Hough played complicated cadenza passages for the right hand against the "orchestra" of the left.


The second half of the concert opened with Ballade No. 3 in A flat, the sunniest of the quartet. The pastorale second subject was played with loving control and a fine sense of legato. The set concluded with the heaven-storming No. 4 in F minor, with its tragic, sobbing theme and portent of impending disaster allowed Mr. Hough to finally let his mask fall. He played with abandon and powerful rhythmic drive. This was the most compelling performance of the four and certainly the most heartfelt.

The programmed concert returned to Debussy for< i>Children's Corner
, six more minatures that take the viewpoint of the younger set and evoke the challenges faced in growing up. Dr. Gradus et Parnassus evoked the nightmare of piano practice, with Mr. Hough capturing the irony laced into the strictly ordered notes. Jimbo's Lullaby makes the left hand galumph like an elephant. He made minimal use of the pedal to carefully shade Serenade of the Doll, adding the fine filigree of five-note scales.

Debussy put some of his most challenging writing into The Snow is Dancing, where the hands toss  ghostly figures that float in the middle of the keyboard. The Little Shepherd was evocative and very beautifully played with a folk-like, rustic tone. The cycle concluded with Golliwogg's Cake-Walk, a music-hall turn that veers sharply into a carefully seeded parody of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The concert ended with the challenges of L'isle joyeuse, as Mr. Hough navigated the onrushing cascade of trills and ornamentations with a sure pair of hands.

Mr. Hough returned with more Chopin: Nocturne No. 2 in F sharp Major. He followed with two of his own works, his arrangement of the Dulcinea Variation from Minkus' Don Quixote and his own Osmanthus Romp, self-described as a "silly" little piece but one well worth the effort to play it. The long set of encores ended with another Nocturne, in this case Grieg's Op. 54 Notturno from the Lyric Pieces. For those who stayed after class, the rewards were worth it. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.