In the Presence of Genius

Stephen Hough performs Paderewski Nocturne

I was lucky enough to be at Bass Hall in Fort Worth Texas Tuesday night March 1, 2011 to witness the performance of a piano recital by Stephen Hough. I feel that Stephen is one of the top pianists performing today. Stephen was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2001, the Northwestern University Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance in 2008, and won the 2010 Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist Award. He is one of the top selling “classical artist” ( I hate the phrase “Classical Music!) working today. The awards his recordings have received are way to numerous to list here. I will strongly recommend his recordings of the complete Saint-Saens Piano Concerto’s and the Complete Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos. These are must have recordings! He has recently recorded the complete works for Piano and Orchestra of Tchaikovsky with the Minnesota Orchestra led by Osmo Vanska. I can’t wait to get my hands on that set of CD’s. Stephen is a resident of London, England and holds the International Chair of Piano Studies at the Royal Northem College in Manchester, England.

The choice of compositions was fascinating. The program was made up of all piano sonatas. (Except for the Encores) Here is the program that Stephen Performed Tuesday night:

Beethoven: Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor Opus 27 No. 2. (Popularly known as the “Moonlight Sonata”)

Janacek: Sonata 1.X.1905 z Ulicy

Scriabin: Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Opus 30


Scriabin: Sonata No. 5, Opus 53

Liszt: Sonata in B minor


Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat Major Opus 9 No. 2

Paderewski: Nocturne in B-flat Major Opus 16 No. 4

Wow, what a night! I’ll just begin at the beginning. What is a Sonata? The piano sonata is a formal Structure that composers used over the years to develop musical ideas. The form grew out of the late Baroque period of music. The Father of the piano sonata was the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti. These short sonatas echoed the form in poetry called the Sonnet. The idea was to give form to longer compositions. So the piece took on a A-B-A-B them followed by a Development Section; and then a recapitulation to the A-B-A-B section and sometimes ending with a Coda section. This form that became known as Sonata Allegro form was very ingrained by the time of Mozart and Hayden. Hayden wrote between 50 and 60 piano sonatas and they almost all follow the formal structure of a sonata. (Some of them have Slow adagio openings before the formal A-B-A-B themes begin.) Mozart wrote about 18 sonatas. It may come as no surprise that Mozart became bored with the strict structural form of the sonata; so, some of his begin to break down the strict rules that are typical of this form of composition. What was so interesting about the sonata’s Mr. Hough chose for this recital is that none of them could be considered typical of the traditional form

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote 32 piano sonatas. These works are the ultimate in all of piano compositions in my humble opinion. By the time of Beethoven’s death he had completely transformed, expanded and exploded what a piano sonata could be. One of his earliest attempts to expand and innovate the sonata is Opus 27 number 1 & 2. These sonatas were subtitled “Sonata quasi una fantasia” (Meaning: Sonata in the manner of a Fantasy”. Instead of the typical A-B-A-B theme the Sonata Opus 27 No. 2 begins as a mournful song. Quiet arpeggio’s rock along as the little finger of the right hand mainly plays out the somber melody. This music is so familiar and so many people can play this movement that that creates the difficulty of performing it. (This was one of the first pieces I ever learned to play). Stephen Hough’s performance was just beautiful. The minuet second movement was great in his emphasis of the syncopation in the rhythm. Beethoven was a real innovator of syncopation and rhythm. The second movement is followed by the wild and difficult third movement. This movement follows the traditional form of the sonata. Mr. Hough’s tempo was electrifying. I’ve heard this movement played fast before but fast and artistically is a different story. I just don’t see how it could have been played any better.

Leos Janacek (1854 – 1928) wrote only one piano sonata. This sonata is in two movements and this sonata is also not in any typical sonata Allegro form. It was composed when Janacek was 51 years old. The title refers to the date October 1, 1905. The composition is a protest piece composed in reaction to the bayoneting of an innocent peasant who had come out to show his support to students peacefully demonstrating the need for a Czech university to the German Authorities. The other part of the tittle “z Ulicy” is translated “from the street”. I am a great student of piano literature but I had never heard of this composition before. Originally the sonata was supposed to have three movements but Janacek did not believe the music was worthy of the subject matter so he destroyed the last movement. The sonata is only 12 minutes long but very concentrated with emotion. Mr. Hough played the first movement with bittersweet and restless momentum. It is entitled “The Presentiment” . The second movement was entitled “Death”. The notes I made during this movement were: “More like a life remembered than a death mourned.” This movement has all the typical open tonality of other masterworks by Janacek. It was simply heartrendingly played by a master performer.

Scriabin (1872-1915) wrote the sonata number 4 in 1903 when he was 31 years old. This was his last sonata that could be said to be in any key (F-sharp major). The difference between the 4th and 5th sonata is dramatic. He left traditional tonality behind for ever. Scriabin wrote 10 sonatas during his life. This sonata has two movements. The first movement was taken at a walking pace and played with sweetness and quietness. It is a tribute to Bass Hall that the softest notes could be so clearly heard. I was in the left orchestra section about 15 rows back but I would bet that no matter where you sat the beautiful quite playing of Mr. Hough could be clearly heard. The second movement is played as fast as possible. Because of the flawless technique of Mr. Hough, this was mind-blowing fast! The theme of the first movement returns with great drama and ecstasy. The concert hall erupted with applause. So much incredible music and it was only intermission.

The Scriabin Sonata number 5 is well known mainly because Vladamir Horowitz played it often in recital. It is a one movement masterpiece and very difficult to play. It is so different than sonata number four it’s hard to believe the same composer wrote. It has stanza from a poem written on the tittle page. “I summon you to life, hidden longings! you, drowned in the dark depths of the creative spirit, you fearful embryos of life, I bring you daring!” In order to play this piece the pianist must totally risk everything. Sviatoslav Richer thought it was one of the two most difficult pieces in all of piano literature to play. Mr. Hough was more than up to the task as he tore his Steinway apart! At the end of the sonata Mr. Hough moved his 9 foot Steinway a foot and a half to the right with the force of the last cord! It was not just virtuosic, it was dazzlingly musical. I thought no one could play this piece like Horowitz, but I was fortunate to see a man be able to recreate with is hands exactly what he heard in his mind. I used to think that only Horowitz could do that. Welcome Stephen Hough to the Pantheon of the Gods.

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) This too, is one of the most difficult compositions for piano that was ever conceived by the mind of man. I love that Mr. Hough closed with this piece. It is the perfect bookend to the Beethoven. Beethoven, the master of the motif (Like the entire 5th symphony of Beethoven built out of the fate motif); inspiring Franz Liszt to attempt to out motif Beethoven. Two basic motives built this entire 20 minute plus single movement work. The first motive is ominous bass notes followed by the almost Wagnerian more melodic second motive. I have heard this piece performed many many times. Sometimes very badly and a few times ingeniously. This performance is up there with the very best ever. To make music so beautifully Mr. Hough had to be completely unconscious of the enormous technical difficulties the composition presents. His performance was simply beautiful.

After a long standing ovation Mr. Hough returned to play two quite and beautiful Nocturne to calm us all down so we could go to sleep. The first was the very famous Chopin Nocturne in E-flat Major Opus 9 no 2. It was exactly what it was supposed to be: a beautiful night song. I love the Bel Canto melodic sense of Chopin. He wrote these pieces as a tribute to Bel Canto style singing. What a song it was. again the quietness of the ending could be heard clearly and was spellbinding.

Last was the Paderewski Nocturne in B-flat major Opus 16 No. 4 by Jan Paderewski. I had never heard this piece before and it was such a nice surprise and a beautiful way to end the concert. I have attached a You-tube video of Stephen Hough performing this very piece. Enjoy.

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About John

I taught myself how to play the piano and read music when I was 9 years old. I've been been consumed by music ever since. I majored in Piano performance in College and I still play, although not as well as when I had time to practice 4 -6 hours per day. This blog is about music. Music is the sound track of our lives. All it take is one song, one composition; and we are transported across time and space. I think it was Beethoven that said: "Music is the landscape of the soul."
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1 Response to In the Presence of Genius

  1. Jimmy Joe says:

    Bravo! Bravo! I wish I was there. Your discriptions are as rich as the performance must have been. Stephen Hough–Bravo!

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