Stephen Hough, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture

Stephen Hough fully justified the accolade of being given the Festival Hall for his recital in the South Bank International Piano Series. His sound is lean and strong, and it carried well in this large space. Hough is a keen advocate of the music of the keyboard virtuoso Hummel, a younger contemporary of Beethoven, and put Hummel's F sharp minor Sonata between the Swiss volume of Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage and a group of Chopin pieces, arguing in his programme note that both composers were indebted to Hummel.

He didn't convince me that Hummel was a great composer, though the sonata, with a showy bit of hand-crossing in its first movement and a catchy finale, tickled the audience's fancy. What he did persuade me of was that Hummel remained bound by the instruments of his time, whereas Liszt and Chopin transcended them. Liszt's "Orage" and "Vallée d'Obermann" made even a modern Steinway sound inadequate, though Hough never made an ugly sound.

For much of the recital, he was in a mood for secretive whisperings, and still every note was clear. Chopin's second and third Impromptus were floated almost casually, at swift tempos and with a feather-light touch. Yet the climax of the third Ballade was given its due in terms of sonority, and in the final moments of the great fourth Ballade, Hough scaled the heights of agility. Neither the climactic flurry of chords nor the sonorous peroration actually needed to be taken at such a breakneck tempo, thrilling though it was, and what Hough didn't quite achieve was a sense of grand design in the piece as a whole: it remained a series of meticulously crafted episodes.

The young Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa made a deep and lasting impression with a recital she gave in the South Bank Series at the Queen Elizabeth Hall two years ago. Like Hough, she loves exploring the finest degrees of quiet playing. But whereas his sound is precisely etched, hers is gently moulded.

Opening her Wigmore Hall recital with Beethoven's "Eroica" Variations, she modified the composer's gruffness, or ruggedness, and scaled down his fortissimi - not a bad idea in this bold acoustic. If the cadenza-like final variation could have been more robust, the following fugue was wonderfully clear, and throughout the whole work, the sense of passing varied scenery was strong, with sensible decisions taken to leave out certain repeats.

The leisurely first movement of Schubert's G major Sonata was so softly floated, it seemed almost wrapped in sleep, and the music-box tinkling of the Trio section in the Minuet was incredibly delicate. The softer passages in the finale were as if overheard from another room. But there was sterner stuff, too, in the contrasting episodes of the second movement, while its main theme smiled, like sunlight.

In the second half, Ursuleasa paired two sonatas written, or at least begun, in the late 1930s - Hindemith's Second and Prokofiev's Seventh. Both sounded a lot more benign than usual, though Hindemith's work is rarely heard these days.

It was worth waiting for Ursuleasa's second encore, Chopin's C sharp minor Nocturne, suspended like the finest spider's web, so fragile that you were afraid it might break.

Highlights from Stephen Hough's recital will be aired on 'Sunday Gala', at 2pm on 7 March, BBC Radio 3