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Variations et Valses

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Haal
03/10/2008 -  
Felix Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses in D Minor, Opus 54
Anton Webern: Variations, Opus 27
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Opus 111
Carl Maria von Weber: Invitation to the Dance, Opus 65
Frederic Chopin: Waltzes in C-sharp Minor and A-flat Major
Camille Saint-Saëns: Valse nonchalante
Emmanuel Chabrier: Feuillet d’album
Claude Debussy: La plus que lente
Franz Liszt: Valse oubliée – Mephisto Waltz No. 1

Stephen Hough (piano)

Hopefully this is not cruel: Stephen Hough is probably the greatest salon pianist in the world today. Yes, his pedigree is faultless, he is renowned not only as an important pianist, essayist, composer, poet and having the slickest red shoes of any concert hall. But the second half of this fascinating hybrid concert exercised all the greatest merits of Hough’s playing: his astonishing technique, tonal nuances, improvisation and sheer poetry.

This second half was geared as the “waltz” section of the program, consisting of rarities, wonders and pleasant numbers bordering on the kitschy. Under Hough’s dazzling hands, it was all quicksilver. Usually very quicksilver.

Who had ever heard Debussy’s ironic La plus que lente, a supposed half-spoof of concert waltzes? It was actually a delightful piece with some major Ravel-like arpeggios. The Weber Invitation to the Dance, granted sounds dreamier with the Berlioz orchestration, but Hough gave it the brio and dream-like quality of his own.

Chabrier and Saint-Saëns’ waltzes were forgettable, but Liszt’s Mephisto was thunderous and beautiful at the same time. As for the pair of Chopin’s waltzes, one could have been listening to the ghost of Rubinstein.

There was something else here. At first, I thought it was Hough bringing out the inner voices which are rarely played. But there was the suspicion—indubitably exercised in the four encores—that he was gilding these lilies on his own à la Godowsky or Cherkassky. Whatever the case, they turned the salon into a Versailles ballroom.

The first half was the "serious" one of variations. Hough fared well here, but his agility veered at times on mere display. This was true in the Mendelssohn Variations sérieuses when the dexterity became digital exercises. But when he played Webern’s Variations, the poetic waltzing music was a kaleidoscope, reflecting, refracting, breaking into electronic images of themselves.

This was not blinkered Webern. The rhythms, intervals and intervallic dynamics were lyrical in themselves. The last variation, in fact, most of which consists of single notes without any harmony, could serve as a child's introduction to atonality.

Hough took no interval but launched directly into the Beethoven. The sudden two opening notes, from E-flat to D-sharp sounded Webernian in themselves. The rest was technically fine Beethoven, stormy in the right places of the second-movement variations, beautiful where it had to be. But this, Beethoven's last sonata also has a sublimity and reverence which few pianists ever achieve.

Hough has achieved so much in his young life, and apparently with such ease, that the Beethoven challenge can be left for another decade.

Harry Rolnick



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