Stephen Hough press reviews
[Louis] Langrée conducted the [Mostly Mozart] Festival Orchestra in the final program of the season [...] featuring the splendid British pianist Stephen Hough. The concert opened with Mr. Hough’s articulate, elegant and fresh account of the well-known Concerto No. 21. Mr. Hough wrote his own cadenzas for the concerto — models of how to make an impression through inventive musical touches and playful harmonic adventures, rather than just showing off one’s virtuosity.
After receiving a warm and well-deserved ovation Mr. Hough played a solo encore, a beautifully direct and tender account of Schumann’s “Träumerei.” Schumann was a great Mozart lover, and it’s a Schumann year. So tucking the piece into an all-Mozart program was a fine idea.
New York Times
A few months shy of his 49th birthday, Hough has solidified his place as one of today's leading pianists, the kind of meaningful artist who is likely to transcend his time to be remembered when lists are compiled decades from now of the great pianists of the early 21st century.
[Brahms' 1st concerto] is routinely featured on orchestral programs, but there was nothing routine about this involving, high-energy version. Rather than try to impose his will on the music, Hough met this piece very much on its terms, his comfortable, organic interpretation deftly conveying its easy romanticism. Especially notable were his daringly deliberate yet unquestionably effective tempos in his delicate, whispered take on the slow movement.
The new friend was pianist Stephen Hough, who will lead another generation of listeners into similar delirium [...] Hough joined [Bramwell] Tovey for an exceptionally poetic and powerful account of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Hough didn’t rely on razzle-dazzle to beguile an audience. Instead, he played with quiet, probing lyricism, nevertheless turning up the power whenever it was needed. He proved incapable of routine — yet never indulged in finicky or misjudged statements. He made this familiar music sound newly written. Welcome him back anytime.
Los Angeles Times
The [piano] sings beautifully on “Chopin: Late Masterpieces,” Stephen Hough’s new recording for the Hyperion label. “Largo,” “cantabile,” and “sostenuto” are three markings that Chopin appends to the slow movement of the Third Piano Sonata—broad, singing, sustained. They imply that the movement is an homage to bel-canto opera, and in particular to Bellini, whom Chopin knew and admired. Hough’s playing of the opening melody suggests that he has thought hard about how it would sound if it were sung by a soprano: in place of the clean articulation that you find on most recordings, he adopts a free, flowing manner, so that one prominent motif—an eighth note followed by a sixteenth-note triplet—is rendered almost as a four-note turn, with the first note held a little longer than the others. The manner is at once regal and inward, as in Bellini’s “Casta diva.” When Hough reaches a high B, he slows for a moment, as a soprano would, for the sake of both expressivity and caution. I’ve gone through various canonical Chopin recordings—including accounts of the Third Sonata by Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti, and Arthur Rubinstein—and found none on which the melody coalesces into such an acutely vocal shape.
[Hough] is known as a rare kind of visionary virtuoso [and] what I cherish in Hough’s playing is the sense that he is making up the music as he goes, even as he realizes the written score with uncommon precision. In his hands, the introduction to the Largo—a jagged descending figure, in sharp dotted rhythms—comes across not as a portentous announcement but as a sudden thought, a bolt from the blue.
Alex Ross: The New Yorker
All eyes and ears Saturday were understandably fixed on Stephen Hough, the pianist who emerged victorious from three rounds with a Brahms concerto and the Cleveland Orchestra [...] Of the few artists truly equal to Brahms' mammoth Piano Concerto No. 1, even fewer bring to it his blend of grandeur, tenderness, and sheer physical strength.
From the beginning, Hough was in charge, driving the tempo amidst a galvanized orchestra and enunciating the composer's boldest declarations with steely intensity. Yet when Brahms turned rhapsodic, the pianist was ready with lyrical sweep and depth. So, too was the horn, who had a prominent solo. Even more combustible was the final Rondo. Besides an aggressive tempo, Hough's performance sustained an element of risk, keeping the orchestra on its toes and listeners on edge.
But it was the Adagio Saturday that revealed what Hough's most fetching side. Unlike the outer movements, his reading of the concerto's core was all about expression and longing.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
A longer stretch of quite transcendent mastery, and a continuation of the French theme, were provided by the pianist Stephen Hough [...] The Bach [was] dispatched with spectacular bravura and rock-like (organ-like) sonority [...] and the account of [Chopin's] B minor sonata exemplified that intermingled high intelligence, emotional warmth and monumental virtuosity that is this pianist’s stock in trade.
The Sunday Times
Alfred Cortot’s glittering transcription of Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue made a surprisingly heavyweight opener; Hough leaving the opening declamations to hang, pealing, in the air [of Lichfield Cathedral]. The effect was stark and ritualistic rather than the expected high-gothic extravaganza.
In César Franck’s tremendous Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Hough held tight control of Franck’s vaulting structure while still managing to bring out an almost impressionistic range of keyboard colours. The same qualities made his Chopin B minor Sonata a thing of both melting expression and utterly convincing formal grandeur.
And [Stephen Hough] was in the congregation the next morning for the first opportunity to hear his [Missa Mirabilis] complete.
This is the work that was with Hough in 2006 when he survived a near-fatal car crash; but even without that knowledge, its glowing romanticism and joyous sense of spiritual conviction would have made their mark.
With its soaring treble lines, thunderous organ solos and gorgeous, ecstatic dissonances, it reminded this listener above all of Janacék’s Glagolitic Mass. Would it be sacrilege to hope for a concert performance?
Stephen Hough is the finest British pianist since the late great Clifford Curzon [and] his quality shines through in every bar of two outstanding new Hyperion issues.
Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto is so frequently abused by crash, bang, wallop pianists that it's easy to forget what beautiful music it contains. Hough leaves you in no doubt, playing with a brilliance that conveys delicacy of feeling as well as virtuosity and power. He is hugely helped by his conductor, Osmo Vanska, and the excellent Minnesota Orchestra [...]
No great artist presents the same face every time, and Hough's playing on his Chopin CD is very different; coolly objective with no spray-on romantic excess, but, once again, bringing out the delicacy, as well as the strength, of Chopin's invention. The greater the music here, the more revelatory the playing, especially in a magnificent account of the Polonaise-Fantasie. This 73-minute recital, carefully laid out to be listened to at a single sitting, concentrates on the late masterpieces. Buying it, and the Tchaikovsky, is a ticket to a pianistic paradise.
The Mail on Sunday (5 stars for both CDs)
Stephen Hough's programme for this Bath Festival recital was a tribute to the Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot. To honour fully such a musical legend requires a comparable mastery, and Hough has it. His slight frame and understated manner belies the physical might of his playing. Yet it is not so much the power that is transfixing as the rigour and penetrating intellect that Hough applies at every level: the listener's attention is immediately caught and nailed to the spot.
Hough opened with his own arrangement of Cortot's transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. The thundering weight of the bass line not only conjured the illusion of the organ's pedal notes, but resonated right up through the instrument to maximise the impact of the chromatic harmony. By contrast, the voicing of the fugue was achieved with impeccable clarity. Hough brought the same incisiveness to Franck's Prélude, Chorale and Fugue, its climactic contrapuntal web balancing that of the Bach, but ending in a typically Franckian carillon flourish.
Hough's ability to weight the tone and, simultaneously, use the sustaining pedal to capture and transform the decaying sound was revelatory, nowhere more so than in the three pieces by Fauré that bridged Bach and Franck. In these, Hough created an impression of dappled light and fluctuating shadows while shaping sweeping arcs of melody.
Poetic instinct was a Cortot characteristic and in the second half Hough brought piercing insight to Chopin, the ultimate poet of the piano. In an elegant pairing of the B major Nocturne, Op 62, with the B minor sonata, Op 58, the balance between the Bachian harmony underpinning the structure and Chopin's expressive sensibilities was perfectly calibrated.
The Guardian (5 stars)
[...] Stephen Hough’s mercurial, magical solo playing in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Hough made a lot of the piece sound as dapper and light-fingered as a Mendelssohn scherzo. Yet somehow, miraculously, he still managed to punch out those spine-chilling Dies Irae quotations like summons from beyond the grave. Superb stuff.
Tchaikovsky Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra on Hyperion Records
The old warhorse (Concerto no. 1) comes up fresh as paint. Even with 130 alternatives on the market this is an exceptional reading [...] The electrifying pace Hough injects into [its] coda and the Concert Fantasia are suitably exciting, though these are nothing compared to the tumultuous final pages of no. 2 (a tremendous performance). The audience whoops in amazement. [...] This is a great recording - no doubt about that - and one which, if there is any justice, will garner any number of awards.
Hough’s easy virtuosity is sometimes taken for granted in his native country, but he is no mechanical flash merchant, as these brilliantly played but thoughtfully reconsidered interpretations reveal. He achieves the remarkable feat of not making the B flat minor concerto sound remotely hackneyed.
Sunday Times (5 stars)
With Hough at the keys, the First Concerto becomes no warhorse taken for a dutiful trot but a freshly imagined masterpiece bouncing with surprises and invention. Beyond Hough’s crystalline clarity, dash and power, Vänskä displays complete mastery of the music’s architecture, engineering tension particularly well in the finale’s hurly burly. The Second Concerto, in G major, also flourishes as never before. Oddities of structure and the piano-orchestra balance pretty much vanish under the musicians’ spell.
Anyone who heard Stephen Hough's barnstorming performances of all the Tchaikovsky piano concertos at last year's Proms will want to own these CDs. Captured live, they recreate all the raw excitement of those memorable evenings at the Albert Hall.
Anyone who heard Hough's performances of the same works at last summer's Proms in London will know what to expect here. His ability to strip off the layers of varnish from a work so that it recaptures much of its startling freshness is remarkable, and his combination of bravura swagger and the most fastidious care with line and texture is utterly convincing.
The Guardian (5 stars)