Opera: A pianist who can really put on the style

Stephen Hough QEH, SBC, London

Stephen Hough is a debonair pianist - not just because he wears neat suits and bow ties. Just listen to the way he caresses, with professional detachment, Godowsky's saucy arrangement of Schubert's third Moment Musical. It's different from the way Shura Cherkassky used to do it, less dangerously sexy and more recognisably modern, coolly calculated. The sense of distance is possible because of Hough's confidence, which releases a suave pleasure in his prowess.

That was an ideal quality in Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses, Hough's opening work on Sunday afternoon, although he also brought to it more variety of colour, and a lot more passion, than you usually hear. It gained stature.

And although Hough would cut a cool customer in any sophisticated cafe- bar, he has intellectual guts, too, as he showed in the American Ben Weber's Fantasia Variations of 1946 - a rather impressive essay in the Schoenberg mould, which Hough played from memory and seemed to have absorbed so thoroughly that the work grew of its own, strong-willed accord.

Beethoven's Op 110 Sonata can easily accommodate a few new approaches, over-played as it is. Yet Hough seemed disengaged from the spirit of the first movement to the extent of appearing casual and shallow. The second movement was fast and dead in time: fierce, though without any pretence at rugged struggle. Then the weighty, searching quality expected in the slow passages of the sonata's remaining journey was almost completely lacking, and instead Hough played them with serene beauty, reserving all the passion he had checked until the climax of the second fugue, which worked itself up in a spirit that seemed not so much redemptory as hysterical.

There was a danger of that, too, in Liszt's Sonata in B minor, the chief work after the interval. Sure, the first main theme after the introductory scales should spring into action, as if galvanised but, after that, Hough over-reacted to many of the big moments, which were diminished in terms of real meaning by short-term sensationalism. The virtuoso element in the Sonata is secondary to its visionary sense of pilgrimage, a moral struggle, which is trivialised when individual sections are treated as opportunities for melodrama. Oddly enough, Hough played the fugue subject quite plainly, and slow sections were very cool and relaxed; but at the merest scent of double octaves, he was off like a mad beast.

Still, his two encores - an exquisite and slightly bluesy little lullaby by Mompou, and Rachmaninov's Polichinelle - fully reaffirmed his profile as one of the most deliciously fastidious players of the present day.

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