Friday night saw Stephen Hough at the keyboard in Jordan Hall. Summoned by the Celebrity Series of Boston, he led a tour of impressionism by Debussy and Chopin with mastery, insight, and passion.
This was Hough’s first solo recital in Boston, although not his first visit to our town. Sadly the hall was not packed, whether because of fine weather or the difficulties of reaching it in the midst of commencement season; surely it was not a reflection on the artist, who has performed here previously in front of orchestral ensembles. A shame, really, for those who missed such a stellar event. The audience recalled Hough to the stage three times before intermission, and three times, plus four encores, at the end of the evening. As for the program, Hough wrote this about his choice: “No two composers were more totally at home in front of the piano than Debussy and Chopin, hands to keys to strings to sound waves to pen and paper in one perfect gesture of inspiration.” The selection he characterized as “purest ‘piano music,’ as orange as an orange is orange.” Tautological perhaps, but apt, even if I would have opted for a different color to characterize this palette. (“As blue as a blueberry is blue” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, and words are important to Hough, the author and musical annotator.)
The recital sandwiched Chopin within Debussy, reversing chronology as it created a narrative of thematic insights and showed the intimacy of compressed expression deriving from earlier public, expansive compositions. Debussy’s La plus que lente, l. 121 opened in a thoughtful rendition played with delicacy, beautiful phrasing, and a fabulous sense of proportion. In three pieces from Estampes, l. 100, “Pagodes,” “La soirée dans Grenade,” and “Jardins sous la pluie,” Hough demonstrated the judicious use of varied touch, making of the piano a guitar or varieties of rainfall; he capturing the essence of these prints. Later, in Children’s Corner, l. 113, we heard playful perfection. In L’Isle joyeuse, l. 106 which followed, Hough balanced sensuous pleasures and dramatic landscapes in taut musical architecture. Debussy’s placid surfaces often conceal profound depths. Hough captured this tension throughout.
If in Debussy surface tensions constrain the seething, in Chopin’s Ballades the music overflows its vessel. Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38, alternates between calm and agitated while Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, captures the manic irruption of folk music into a sea of tranquility. Ballade no. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47, ranges from flowing to stormy, expressing watery power in all its guises. Ballade no. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, is a study in nostalgia, capturing Chopin gazing wistfully back to his native Poland. All four ballades are linked, rightly or wrongly, with poems by Adam Mickiewicz; like poems, their logic proceeds by selecting and linking equivalences rather than subsuming them to the logic of contiguity. Varied gestures brought into conversation tell a story, and Hough is a masterful storyteller.
The formal program finished, Hough offered up four encores: Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15 No. 2, continuing on from the body of the recital yet shifting the mood to a more relaxed and meditative vein; Dulcinea Variation, Hough’s own arrangement of music from Minkus’s ballet Don Quixote, presented lovely dreamlike ballet music with lustrous sheen and internalized passion; Hough’s “silly little piece” (as he called it from the stage), Osmanthus Romp, is a delightful breakdown of piano technique in the spirit of honky-tonk; Grieg’s “Notturno” from his Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, No. 4, a counterpoint to the Chopin Nocturne, made of these four encores a coherent set and a prayerful culmination.