Federation Concert Hall, Hobart
June 28, 2018

The Tempest was the first work to resonate through the Federation Concert Hall at this event, with a markedly technical performance from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. This Tchaikovsky fantasy felt fragmented, spacious, and with sections exposed (the latter being well-suited to the venue’s acoustics). Balance was exceptional – but this came through disjointed passages of music with abrupt changes in voice and dynamic.

Today, The Tempest feels surprisingly cinematic. Similarly, its initial build seems to await some sort of cue for change or resolution, rather than arrive at its destination through pacing we might find familiar. Without criticism of composer or orchestra, this music simply was what it was (but with exceptional execution).

And then, Stephen Hough.

Few musicians do I place on a pedestal, but this pianist and world-renowned “polymath” (as The Economist named him) is one such artist. His playing is inarguably logical but never cold. It is a challenge to understand his capacity to navigate such dualities – tenderness and aggression; fervency and perfection. Through it all, he never appears to lose technical or emotional control.

During the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, I was positioned on the balcony and could watch Hough’s fingers skate across the keys; in fact, for this I was thankful as his sound often sunk into the orchestra. From the outset, it appeared he was giving to the TSO, but I am not sure the players responded in kind (knowingly or unknowingly). Too often, Hough simply could not be heard. I cannot speak to how this affected those seated below, but this particular hall does exhibit a tendency to soak up volume.

Occasionally distracting dynamics aside, the performance did not disappoint. And, of course, Hough provided exactly what was needed. Nothing more, by way of excess or ego; and nothing less than true musicianship.

Here, the concert was interrupted by Hough’s encore. (I believe he’d presented two or three encores in his most recent Tasmanian performance I attended!). Generous with his crowd, tonight we only received one but it was a pleasure indeed. A few giggles emerged when he commenced Dvořák’s “most familiar piece” – the Humoresque No 7 in G Flat – entirely sentimental and a true crowd-pleaser. Receiving his applause, Hough lingered next to the piano as though wanting to play more, or humbly attribute some of his recital’s success to the instrument itself.

The Dvořák Symphony No 6 in D Major broke the interval with a real sense of charm – a wonderful way to thank and celebrate Hough, who had taken his seat in the audience for this second half. As articulate as The Tempest, this work boasted plenty of spirit through immaculate playing. In the Scherzo: Furiant (Presto), I noticed a young gentleman next to me had started tapping his fingers on his knee in a fashion as wild as the music itself. I felt frustrated for a moment until I realised that, with jaw clenched, I’d been bopping my head to the same pulse.

The Finale (Allegro con spirito) came to a huge finish – but signalled the end of a concert that placed equal value on the moments within its works; rather than an overall journey. However, in all, an undoubtedly agreeable evening.

Stephen Hough performs with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, July 4 – 6


Hough performs with Queensland Symphony Orchestra, July 14