Duke Performances' Piano Recital Series at Baldwin Auditorium consistently features the most exceptional pianists from around the world, and the latest performance was no different. British pianist Stephen Hough is lauded worldwide not only for his performance skills, but also for his career(s) as a recording artist, composer, and writer. None of his works are in short supply – Hough has recorded over 50 albums, published over 40 works in many classical genres, written at least 600 articles for his online blog on The Telegraph. He is also a novelist – and yes, a painter too. Although the main skill on display Friday night was piano performance, it can be assumed that Hough's constant and varied creation in his career contributes to his performances too.
Hough's written note in the program shed some light on his program choices: while all three composers (Debussy, Schumann, and Beethoven) hail from some part of the Romantic era, the musical styles are extremely different. Such was the purpose of the program: to shed light on the varying ways that these Romantic composers communicate imagery and emotion. However, specific interpretations were up to the listener, of course.
Immediately, one of the most striking things about Hough's style was his treatment of silence. He began with Debussy's beloved "Claire de lune," which is almost mesmerizing in its sparseness. Here, the space between each phrase became just as important as the notes within. Completing this rubato was a sense of digging in to each change in harmony.
Two more sets of Images by Debussy – Book II on the former half and Book I on the latter – were performed with a full sense of imagination. Highlights of these were the open, eerie chords and aleatoric melodies of Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut (and the moon descends on a temple that had been), the darting, range-encompassing activity of Poisson d'or (Goldfish), and the masterfully thrilling agility of Mouvement.
Schumann's Fantasie, Op. 17 is wildly different from Debussy, but no less fascinating to behold. It is noted that perhaps this sonata is an interpretation of Schumann's own emotional turmoil, with confident melodies at each movement's onset that swiftly dissolve into meandering, fragmented phrases or an overall sense of agitation. Depicting each and every one of these rapidly changing emotions is no small feat, and the unpredictability of Schumann worked in Hough's favor for a rapturous performance.
Since Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (posthumously-nicknamed Appassionata) is widely considered to be his most technically challenging sonata, it was a treat to see it performed live. To connect to the other pieces on the program, it could be said Beethoven's changing moods are similar to Schumann, although Beethoven's overall form is more obvious; connections to Debussy could potentially be made with parts of the third movement, where ethereal, gliding arpeggios are a brief respite before the fiery, breakneck speed of the sonata's close. Unfortunately, Hough has not immortalized the Appassionata in one of his many albums – at least as of yet.