Stephen Hough

The 'seemingly inexhaustible' pianist has Philip Hammond on the edge of his pew at Rosemary Street First Presbyterian Church

If you are ever planning to purchase the complete set of Rakhmaninov’s Piano Concerti, you shouldn’t discount the live recordings that Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony produced in 2004 with British pianist Stephen Hough. I think they are unbeatable musically.

Stephen Hough is in Belfast for a recital at the 50th Belfast Festival at Queen's. It's Sunday, October 29 and the venue is Rosemary Street First Presbyterian Church, which has wonderful ambiance even if the obdurate and unyielding wooden benches do tend to emphasise the less than sybaritic origins of the building.

But I am here for pleasure of a different kind – the pleasure of listening to one of the most musically interesting pianists on the current circuit. A quote of his comes to mind: ‘On the keyboard, I love thinking about colour and transparency of texture: how you can hear different lines through the use of the pedal and the tone, and how those different lines each have an independent rubato, an independent life.'

It's from a recent interview that Hough gave to Classical Music, during which time he played Chopin’s two 'Nocturnes Op.27'. Tonight Hough treats both as miniatures and scales his sounds accordingly. There’s nothing vacantly dreamy about his interpretation of these 'night pieces'.

There is something much more enthralling, an intangible understanding which is conveyed through his skilful playing to the listener. He catches Chopin’s delicate intimacy of language, devoid of show for its own sake even in the challenging ornamentation, which in this performance magically evaporates as quickly as it appears.

What a contrast the third sonata by Brahms provides by comparison. Here is a work showing a young man who is trying to make an impact through virtuosity. All three sonatas are a statement of arrival, and Hough heroically presents us with the music of a young eagle, as Schumann put it, who piles challenge upon challenge and overcomes all obstacles by sheer force of his ambition to be heard.

Admittedly, the five movements of this sonata can be indigestible at times. It is a relatively early work sometimes providing just too much material to take in. But Hough leads the listener through the daunting technical demands of the writing, concentrating on the bare bones of the formal structures and keeping up a relentless pace that underscores the emotional range of the music.

Hough traces lightly the embryonic Brahms, hinting at the later styles without either over emphasis or dismissal. This is the muscular music of youth, but the 50-year-old Hough has power in reserve for every twist and turn of every technical requirement. These sonatas seem to have been conceived as symphonies, yet Hough successfully rises above the mere pianistic difficulties to reveal the sense of direction in the music.

He is the sort of pianist who inspires confidence in an audience. We know that there is nothing pianistically beyond him, and we await with a sense of eagerness his next revelations. These come in his own second Piano Sonata – subtitled 'notturno luminoso'.

It's a work which is eclectic in its influences and perhaps even its sound worlds. Cascades of notes remind me of Rakhmaninov, Messaien, Stravinsky, and the largely polytonal basis of the music promotes an immense amount of harmonic colour. The stark juxtaposing of dynamic and movement provides a driving momentum and like the Chopin, this is not 'night music' to drop off to.

The stunning virtuosity of Hough’s sonata seems to spill over into the opening of Schumann’s 'Carnaval Op.9'. It’s obvious that Hough is now on a musical high, and maybe as a result he slightly overblows the scale of the opening movement. But soon the bluster and extroversion of the imagery settles down and Hough adapts and warms to the romanticism of Eusebius rather than just the flamboyance of Florestan for a while.

It is difficult to comprehend his endless supply of energy. But throughout this recital, even at its most pianistically complex, Hough reveals the multi-layered dimensions of each composition, rationalising each level of melodic interest.

With a mind and technique of truly exceptional ability, and knowing every note from the inside out, Hough keeps us on the edge of our pews, drinking in the seemingly inexhaustible excitement from his font of virtuosity and intellectual musicality.

The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues until November 4.