Stephen Hough's strange sonatas

The British pianist gave a spectacular recital at St George's, Bristol, writes Rebecca Franks


A welcome day of sunshine in Bristol didn’t stop a good turnout for Stephen Hough’s recital last Friday. And the glorious sunlight coming through the round-arch windows of St George's didn't detract from the moody nocturnal atmosphere being conjured up on stage. 

The British virtuoso began his recital of ‘strange or unusual sonatas’ with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ in C sharp minor. The poet Ludwig Rellstab might have been behind its nickname – he imagined the first movement to depict ‘a boat by moonlight, crossing to the wild parts of Switzerland’s Vierwaldzee’ – rather than the composer but Hough’s serenity, those left-hand dotted figures diving into the piano’s deeper waters, made it seem more than apt enough.

Rellstab didn’t go so far as to suggest that the rest of the Sonata represented the wild parts of the Vierwaldzee but it'd certainly be a tumultuous place if Hough’s whirling dervish of a finale, complete with its startling accents, was anything to go by.

Between sonatas, Hough took a moment to explain his choice of theme to the audience. ‘Strangeness’, he explained, linked these works by Beethoven, Janáček, Scriabin and Liszt. It made for an intriguing programme – though I wondered if really it was the sense of improvisation that characterised the five Sonatas? Beethoven, after all, preferred the description ‘Quasi una Fantasia’ for his Op. 27 No. 2; while the Janáček, Scriabin and Liszt Sonatas which followed all have spur-of-the-moment qualities.

Janáček’s remarkable ‘From the Street’ Sonata, inspired by the tragic shooting of a young Czech man in 1905, was rapidly written in passionate response. The free rhapsody of the first movement is followed by a static, obsessive second movement in which the pianist seems constantly to be trying out new harmonic escape routes, but always coming back to the start. In his darkly hued performance, Hough brought out the Sonata's intensity, its portrayal of the troubles of a mind going in questioning circles.

A pair of Scriabin Sonatas, Nos 4 and 5, bookended the interval. Hough had, he told us, had a change of heart about the programme order: Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata, swapping places with the Fifth, would now preface Liszt’s Sonata in B minor so that the latter’s structure seemed less odd and more ‘Classical’. Full of improvisatory flourishes, glimpses of light and colour, Scriabin’s Sonatas are, as the programme notes suggested, ‘dreamlike ramblings’, after which Liszt’s fiendish Sonata in B minor seemed if not Classical, at least grounded in human whims and moods. Hough balanced its complex, ambiguous architecture with perfectly-judged detail, giving an unforgettable performance of this Sonata.

And the overwhelming emotion after such an accomplished recital was admiration – a near-standing ovation saw him come back for Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin – played with a beautiful liquid tone – and a Lisztian rendition of L'Isle Joyeuse. By then, it seemed the audience was reluctant to leave, the lure of Stephen Hough’s astonishing pianism stronger than that of the sunshine…


James Naughtie talks to Stephen Hough in the July issue of BBC Music Magazine - out now.

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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