Stephen Hough at the Barber Institute by Christopher Morley

It has been my privilege to attend concerts at the Barber Institute for over 50 years, even, during my prime as an undergraduate there, to perform on its hallowed stage.
But I doubt whether this jewel of an auditorium has often experienced an atmosphere more electric than that generated in a full house by Stephen Hough as he presented a cleverly-constructed programme of Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven.
It was a brilliant idea to begin with the modest Clair de Lune, movingly affectionate under Hough's hands (the critic who wrote "its sentimental beauties have found their true haven in the tea-shop; oblivion would have been better" deserves oblivion himself),  its subtle pedalling preparing the way for magical colourings and chordings in the two books of Images.
Though patrician and so perfectly self- absorbed, Hough's readings could never be described as aloof. Instead they were persuasively revealing of the pianist's total immersion in these works which fluidly meld literature and painting into sonic art.
Each half of this absorbing recital ended with a major sonata. Chopin B-flat minor gripped from start to finish with its layers of detail and, again, Hough's magisterial pedalling. How anyone gets his head and fingers around the hellish finale defeats me -- and what was Chopin thinking of?
The finale of Beethoven's Appassionata is much more clearly-defined, battering at hell's door in a different way as the climax to a craggy drama to which Hough supplied anguished physicality as well as daemonic moodiness.
After all of this, a Schumann Etude Symphonique was the perfect encore -- except that it ear-wormed me all through the next two nights.
Christopher Morley

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