STEPHEN HOUGH review by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Music Toronto Presents
Stephen Hough, pianist
Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

The effect of Stephen Hough’s performance brings to mind one of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: ENOUGH OR TOO MUCH.

Taut as a cable Hough sits erect and still at the keyboard, his hands flat, elbows tucked in: the music flows out of his fingers commanding attention to the power, the precision and the finely nuanced feeling of it.

Mendelssohn’s 18 part “Variations serieuses, Op. 54” is rendered in high contrast: delicate right-hand melodies dance above formal Bachian progressions; melodies sparkle like sunlight on water dividing above the dark chiaroscuro stones of a mountain brook; chromatic suspended harmonies rush as if chased through a thundering gorge and resolve into a pool of tranquil reflection and peace.

The opening twelve-tone series of Anton Webern’s “Variations, Op. 27” are hesitant half-sounded notes, demi-phrases suspended like the footsteps of a paranoid dwarf tiptoeing into the darkness of an unfamiliar cave. By the third movement, Hough has moved us into a jazzy, bluesy, cool, spare, private, intimate space suspended in time.
Hough’s performance of Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op.111” left no room to doubt his sincerity: he was taking no prisoners. The first movement is tragic in tone. At Beethoven’s thunderous forge, the first three-note theme is heated, hammered and articulated into a protean sequence of shapes. The second movement modulates to C Major. Though tranquil and reflective, the high register, somewhat dissonant melodies, often rippling over high register trills, seem to be played directly on the nerves. The effect is hypnotic, entrancing. Hough uttered the concluding pianissimo chord and with his posture held a long silence that no one dared to intrude on with applause, until he gave a sign.

The programme after intemission lightened up the mood with a selection of waltzes by von Weber, Chopin, Saint-Saens, Chabrier, Debussy, and Liszt. Oddly, I found Hough’s treatment of this salon music, especially the Chopin, a bit forceful. With Chabrier’s “Feuillet d’album” , the tenderness of mood of the subject and the ambiguous playing created a pleasing effect. Hough updated Debussy’s wry “La plus que lente” well as a kind of cool, urbane cocktail piano piece with touches of Gershwin, Rachmaninoff and Cole Porter.

With this part of the programme, we were invited to enjoy Stephen Hough, the entertainer. Wittily, he concludes his programme with a piece by Liszt depicting the “diabolically virtuoso playing of Mephistopheles” entertaining a village crowd while Faust seduces a maiden. A ‘diabolically’ charming coincidence in a review of this extraordinary performance introduced about by a proverb from Hell: ENOUGH OR TOO MUCH.

The audience demanded and got three encores.

In the lobby a parting patron gave Stephen Hough this tribute:

“He’s one slick dude in his green metallic shoes.”

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