This was a recital that showed just what a keyboard colossus Stephen Hough, 61 on St Cecilia’s Day, has become. It further underlined the polymath factor in his makeup, with the programme featuring his own composition, a Partita written to commission in 2019, with the music surrounding it helping give context to its style and influences.
Catalan composer Federico Mompou would emerge as one of those influences and it was with Mompou’s Cants Mágics that Hough began, the understated expressiveness of its five short movements an ideal curtain raiser. Its final Calma had cast an almost incantatory spell, making the opening flourish of Scriabin’s 5th Sonata even more arresting. Scriabin described this as a “big poem”, in its way actually massive, cast in a single movement, its progress mercurial, alternately imposing, playful, lyrical, bombastic. It was played with utter conviction, as were the Debussy Estampes that followed, the storm of Jardins Sous La Pluie vying with Scriabin for impact.
In his Partita, Hough had consciously moved from the seriousness of his first four sonatas to a more popular vein, with decidedly Romantic gestures contrasting with an altogether spikier rhythmic feel. Its five-movement structure emulated the earlier Mompou, with two shorter central movements – Canzion y Danza I & II – clearly inspired by his example. But it was in the closing flamboyant Toccata that Hough seemed to be taking on all the other composers on their own territory, unashamedly showy and virtuosic.
Yet it was his Liszt, the three Petrarch Sonnets and the Dante Sonata from the second volume of Années de Pèlerinage, that set the seal on Hough’s performance here. In the third sonnet’s passages of limpid beauty, he achieved a spellbinding aura of intimacy in the St George’s acoustic, going on to give a simply blistering account of the sonata with its elements of fantasy, its diabolic tritone interval and its hellish technical demands. The sheer clarity of sound – Hough playing his own Yamaha piano, resonant bass and bright, if occasionally slightly harsh, top – allowed Liszt’s harmonic audacity to register all the more forcibly, with control of the extraordinary dynamic range – pianississimo (ppp) to fortississimo (fff) in a matter of bars – simply breathtaking. One might have been back in the 19th century with the great Liszt himself.