Review: From moonlit dreamy to fiery passion, Stephen Hough delivers like the true original he is

Stephen Hough. Photo: Sim Canetty Clarke.

Stephen Hough opened this year’s Chamberfest Sunday night like the true original he is, right down to the grosgrain ribbons on his patent leather court shoes.

In a recital focused on Schumann and Debussy, most pianists would traditionally open with their Beethoven sonata. Hough closed with it — and not just any old sonata, but a hellfire performance of the Appassionata.

Hough started at the opposite end of the mood spectrum, with a pearlescent, silver shot rendition of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Hough plays this chestnut less placidly than most, with a fluttering energy suggesting clouds billowing across the sky on a winter night.

From there he went straight into Book 2 of the same composer’s Images. Hough favours deeply etched detail and striking contrasts — this was no wan, pastel-washed Debussy. La lune descend sur le temple qui fut was cast in shivering light and velvet shadow, filtered through thick pedal effects, like a haze of incense. Hough played Poissons d’or with delicious humour, a fishbowl drama lightly sketched in aquatic iridescence and finny insouciance.

Schumann’s C Major Fantasie — a desperate outpouring of love and passion to Clara, although dedicated to Franz Liszt — was played with terrific forward impulsion and lavish sound. But Hough chose to highlight Schumann’s manic, irrational aspects, and I found myself wishing for a more tender brand of lyricism, especially in the soaring first movement. The March section sounded more forceful than heroic; Hough maintained such intensity throughout that when the tumbling, accelerating frenzy of the final bars arrived, the impact was diminished.

It was back to moonlit Debussy after intermission. Hough’s sound in La terrasse des audiences au clair de lune was creamy and exotically opulent, while Mouvement from Book 1 of Images whirled with gyroscopic precision.

Which brought us, with an abrupt shift of gears, to the Appassionata. Hough’s storm-tossed first movement had an edge of explosive rage that foreshadowed the later Romantic composers, and he took the Andante at a brisk clip that echoed the Schumann from the first half of the concert. Hough held nothing back in the rip-roaring last movement, any pretense of being note-perfect or stylistically correct abandoned in favour of demonic expressive power. Yes, the wheels fell off in the Hungarian train wreck of the coda, but it’s refreshing to hear an artist who seems utterly free from the pressure to play it safe.

The audience leapt to its feet, and Hough responded with a dreamy, gentle encore of  Des Abends from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.