★★★★★ An all too rare piano recital packed with intellectual insight as much as technical thrill and adventure.

Adelaide Town Hall
April 14, 2016

Stephen Hough has gained an individual reputation as a pianist due to the sheer breadth of his interests as a composer, pianist and writer – just to name a few areas to which he is passionately devoted. It is not amiss to call him a complete pianist – one who is equally at home in rediscovering forgotten or overlooked treasures from the past whilst keeping a unique place when it comes to his own compositions for the piano whilst celebrating the many sides to his intellectual personality – be they philosophically or technically based. And it was with a deeply thought out recital ranging from Schubert, Liszt and the rather neglected Cesar Frank, to his own witty way with the twelve-tone system, that he more than adequately covered all required bases and more.

Much thought has gone into the planning of this excellent recital, linking all four of these composers. Initially it appears that the binding idea here is the binding ideas of Catholicism – for not only would Schubert and Franck have been bound by the structures of 19th-century dogma, (Liszt may be seen to have taken this idea even further by becoming an abbé), but obviously these ideas lie close to the pianist’s heart and mind, with him adopting the faith wholeheartedly. And as wonderful as these works by others composers are, it is Hough’s own Third Piano Sonata which is of central importance here.

Given Hough’s celebrated technical prowess and curiosity for communication, it doesn’t surprise that he opts for the now rather old-fashioned ideas of the Schoenbergian twelve-tone row whilst the majoroty of other contemporary composers are now seeking an approach that is somehow more melodic when it comes to composition. Yet even here with Trinitas, the title that he’s given this somewhat approachable piece for the system, he brings together ideas that nicely coalesce with his personal ideas of faith as much as with a rather conservative approach to the more often thorny tone row. His harmonies appeal as much to the intellectual as to the Romantic and he has undoubtedly not forgotten Schoenberg’s late quip that there still remained much to be written in the key of C Major, as it’s this very key that Hough chooses to focuses upon in in this three-movement sonata.

In this well-planned recital there is also a sense of moving from darkness towards light, commencing with Schubert’s darkest sonata of all (No 14, D784) which undoubtedly dates from the time when the composer had been diagnosed with the then death sentence of syphilis. From here it’s just a shot away to Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue with a similar darkness to some of Bach’s organ works and the late Art of the Fugue which in their own way, dovetail quite neatly into the late Romantic milieu of Franz Liszt, whose Valses oubliees and Transcendental Studies all seek to support Hough’s new sonata both philosophocally and academically, as well as on a musical level. Here was an all too rare piano recital which was packed with intellectual insight as much as technical thrill and adventure.

Stephen Hough tours Australia for Musica Viva until May 2