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Stephen Hough Plays with Edge

available at Amazon
Grieg, Lyric Pieces, S. Hough
(Hyperion, 2015)
We have seen a lot of Stephen Hough in the area in recent years, after many concerto appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra (2014, 2012) and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (2013, 2009). So it was surprising to learn that his recital on Wednesday night -- no April Fool's -- was the British-born pianist's first in Washington, presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Like any performance by Hough, this impeccably crafted concert was marked by a characteristic precision, a meticulousness of touch that bordered on the downright finicky. The only problem is that the two composers on this program, Debussy and Chopin, do not necessarily benefit the most from such an approach.

In a rhetorical flourish, Hough arranged the pieces into a near-perfect chiasmus, with the four ballades of Chopin at the center, broken up by intermission -- even the re-ordering of the ballades, 2-1-3-4, served the mirror form, putting the most difficult ballades on the outside. Hough applied a broad rubato to the Debussy pieces, both stretching and rushing ahead, that still managed to sound somehow systematic, beginning with the whispered La plus que lente. The three movements of Estampes bristled with all kinds of pleasing details, but one missed a more velvety touch, especially in legato phrases that did not quite melt together, which would have added some misty brushstrokes to obscure the overly clean lines. Hough's rendition of Children's Corner, with many of its more challenging passages played with mechanical efficiency, seemed at times to want to show a kinship with Stravinsky's more primitivistic style. I felt no more comfortable with Hough playing Golliwog's Cakewalk than I did with the Salzburg Marionettes' use of the same character in La boîte à joujoux -- as if the goal of not sanitizing art could make one feel any more comfortable with resurrecting the minstrel show in blackface. L'Isle Joyeuse, played without much sustaining pedal, felt dry and percussive, and in his drive to make a climactic final statement, Hough walloped the keyboard far beyond what seemed necessary.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, The right Hough: Pianist delivers superb recital at Terrace Theater (Washington Post, April 3)

Janelle Gelfand, A conversation with piano star Stephen Hough (Cincinnati Enquirer, March 29)
Chopin's ballades had their own shortcomings, none of them technical, as Hough's handling of the music's challenges, even in nos. 2 and 4, was mostly solid, with only some right-hand stickiness here and there. It was more the slow parts that fell flat: the encoded poetry of no. 2's slow theme rushed and played without a true legato touch, the rubato run amok in no. 1, so one lost almost all sense of the meter at times. No. 4 was even a little boring until the greater technical challenges kicked in. Only in three encores did Hough seem to let his hair down and relax: two Chopin nocturnes (op. 15/2, op. 9/2) and a truly cooky arrangement of a piece from Minkus's score for the ballet Don Quixote, played with a sense of whimsy close to that of Chico Marx.

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