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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 © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Concert Review: From Serenity to Oblivion

Stephen Hough in recital at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The always dapper Stephen Hough and friend.
Photo by Sim Canetty Clarke provided by Carnegie Hall. 
There's a three-word cliché used by tired (and too-wired) classical music journalistas to describe Stephen Hough. That cliché is the "thinking man's pianist." Cliché or no, he remains an intelligent and slightly aloof artist, who is most often heard in the concerto format. On Tuesday night, Mr. Hough, a dapper gent (who looks like he just auditioned for a certain BBC science fiction series) made his welcome return to Carnegie Hall for an evening of Debussy, Schumann and Beethoven.



Mr. Hough is not known for flash but for carefully considered interpretations of standard repertory. His current focus is the music of Debussy, of which he released a recital disc last year. This is supremely difficult stuff not only to play but to interpret as something other than the standard wisps of cloud and water that fall from the fingers of so many other artists.

He began with Clair de Lune, arguably the most popular (and over-played!) piece that Debussy ever wrote. And yet he found new depths in this familiar music, mining the left hand writing for the surging harmonics that support the melodic line and driving the theme forward with urgency before letting the liquid notes hang suspended in the air as if time itself had stopped for a few beats. Mr. Hough did not take his hands from the keys.

He segued rapidly into the second book of Images from the same composer. The first started with a simple descending scale for the left hand arpeggiated with the right, building in slow, tolling waves of sound before surging up and down the keyboard and gradually accelerating and building to an insistent volume. "Et la lune" had some of the same qualities, taken at an even slower place. Finally "Poissons d'or" danced rapidly up and down the keyboard in a surge that broke the liquid tension of the first two movements with frantic trills for the right hand. Only at its end did he allow applause.

Next came Robert Schumann's Fantasy in C. This is a beloved work that lies ignored and unplayed by many pianists for its sheer difficulty. Essentially, this is a musical argument between "Florestan" and "Eusebius", the two contrasting sides of Schumann's own personality. The first is flashy and virtuosic, the second thoughtful and full of yearning. Mr. Hough captured both sides of this internal debate and maintained the narrative, forward flow of this work, with its Herculean length and difficulty providing windows for profound interpretation.

The second half followed the same basic format as the first. Four works from Debussy were presented in rapid succession. "La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune" served as a kind of counterpart to the concert's opener while the far trickier first book of Images offered a fresh set of challenges. Here, it was the "Hommage a Rameau" that offered the indication that this half of the concert would be a very different beast than the placid opening: this and the tolling of a solemn Dies Irae in the final "Mouvement" indicating that the storm was about to break.

When it did, it took the form of Beethoven's Appasionata Sonata. This three-movement work is among Beethoven's most popular but also more challenging--and as a result it is more frequently heard on headphones than in the concert hall. Mr. Hough took a bold approach to the movements throwing off any pretense of restraint as he attacked Beethoven's complicated puzzle-boxes of variations and a driving finale that threatened to bust the steel frame of the Steinway. This was bold and exciting playing, edge of the seat stuff. At the end, he sank back exhausted, but returned to offer two welcome encores (more Schumann) to send the crowd home happy. 

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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.