Lauded British pianist Stephen Hough’s piano recital Friday night at the Shalin Liu Center in Rockport began with a notably lyrical and loving delivery of Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces. (His recordings of Liszt and Schumann are similarly luscious and pointed, sometimes approaching the edge of excess sensitivity, with a bit too much rubato and pointmaking, a bit too much lefthand dominance, but they also are deeply felt and executed, and phrased impeccably.) What happened the rest of the evening? Hough’s remaining performances sounded so shapeless, ‘lineless’, wanting in forward motion that I speculated something was off with my hearing, sensibility, and judgment. I shifted and leaned, moved my head about slightly, seeking to sense focus and propulsion. I queried more than once a retired musician in attendance. He replied, ‘No, it’s not you. His playing just is not coming together. And it lacks mystery; also urgency; also grandeur.’
More objectively, there were smudged fingerwork and smudging pedaling in fair measure, which never helps.
The theme of the recital was multum in parvo, much in little. The six 1911 Schoenberg works, the last of which comprises 10 amazing measures, three marked pppp, and was written in tribute to the recently deceased Mahler (much in much), all presage Schoenberg’s ‘novel in a single gesture’ comment made about his student Webern a couple years later. From this substantial serial quicksilver, Hough led us to a few earlier-composed appetizers, 3-4 minutes each, by Richard Strauss (at 20), Wagner, and Bruckner. An odd sequence to my taste, but the artist loves this sort of light, sometimes tedious stuff, and 15 or so years ago released at least three fine CDs of such.
Strauss’s Reverie is tiresome and garrulous despite its brevity, at least after Schoenberg’s density. Wagner’s album leaf for patron Pauline Metternich (yes, that family) could well have been written or played by (and sounds studied by) Stephen Foster, whom one wants Hough to include in his miniatures cabinet. Bruckner’s Memory may be rather more synecdochic, at least when it’s not simply going on like Grieg in Bavaria (at a Bavarian cocktail lounge is more like it). The playing of all of these was more sensitive than is required.
The execution problems accompanied the nourishment: Brahms’s seven opus 116 Fantasies and Chopin’s four Ballades. Every other moment you paid attention, ravishing pianism was to be found, beautifully quiet and evenly voiced, pristine in touch and control. But so much of the rest was slightly untidy (slightly is plenty enough), too thoughtful (get on with it and just play out, you wanted to suggest), rich but not big, not powerful nor majestic enough. The Brahms turn from outward-facing to acutely, regretfully inward. The last three (which are truly still and strange) had goal and purpose, but the Fourth, Intermezzo: Adagio, lay there so statically, without coherence and drive, that I thought it sounded more like early musings from Schoenberg about “atonical” possibilities. It’s true that these pieces are sufficiently unfathomable as they slowly unspool their moments, that it must be only too easy to be caught listening to them hypnotized while playing. A chief part of being a communicative artist, though, and Hough from his stage remarks and his myriad writings everywhere else is admirably keen on that role, is not lapsing into some stoner mode and staring at the seemingly motionless measures, especially in these Intermezzos—in other words finding an effective balance between probing and advancing.
The Chopin Ballades, too, intermittently featured gorgeous artistry, unerring passagework, full and clear polyphony with inner voices emphasized in the lefthand (always a treat in Chopin), dramatic storytelling with deep softness and contrasting explosions, yet weakened from moment to moment by smeary overpedaling, tenseness, actual struggles. For every delicate chord and note of hard-to-believe pianissimo there came a failure to get comfortably past middle loudness, although the Rockport piano has never sounded better. Not a satisfactory statement of a large and important Romantic set.
It was a highly mixed, episodic bag, then, from such a bruited and decorated musician (also poet and painter), polymathic this, MacArthur that. Encores—the RCMF audience loved the recital, I should point out—included some (guessing) morsel of MacDowell channeling Borodin, or vice-versa, then a (guessing) Kreisler-like Viennese pastry, and last the Chopin Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Opus 15 No. 2, with its short-lived agitated middle, whose near terror Hough also pretty much missed.