It’s a wonderful feeling to put yourself wholly in the hands of a master. A few minutes into Stephen Hough’s excellent Washington Performing Arts recital at the Terrace Theater on Thursday night — partway through Debussy’s “Estampes” — I felt inner tensions relaxing within my body. There was no need to do anything, on this evening, other than sit back and appreciate whatever the pianist wanted to show us [...]
Hough is frequently described as a polymath, an intellectual, or even, in the wake of being awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2001, a genius. He’s an adroit writer and thinker, and he plays like one in that he always, regardless of what he’s playing, has something specific to say. This doesn’t mean that his playing is at all double-domed; on the contrary, his light touch is what makes him so beguiling. Chopin’s First Ballade is sometimes delivered with passionate intensity from the start; Hough played its opening phrases almost artlessly, with a buoyant sense of spontaneity and plenty of room to develop emotionally in a seamless and ever-intensifying narrative [...]
[For one of his encores he played his] own arrangement of an excerpt of Minkus’s ballet “Don Quixote” [...] at once artful and graceful and so funny that the audience was laughing along all the way through.
Hough certainly made [the Dvorak concerto] seem the most attractive music in the world, making light of the more strenuous moments in the opening Allegro, adding silvery filigree to the Grieg-like passages in the slow movement, and steadily increasing the showiness of the finale. His Hyperion recording, taken from the Symphony Hall performances, should be a treat.
The Guardian (5 stars)
Stephen Hough’s thrilling performance of the Dvorak concerto] with the CBSO’s music director, Andris Nelsons, shed fresh light on the work and its place within Dvořák’s output [...] Hough had all the delicacy and steel-fingered virtuosity [...] and played with blistering brilliance where required. But what made this performance truly special was his musical dialogue with Nelsons and the orchestra. This is not a piece that plays itself, and in the wrong hands its paragraphs can sound disconnected, but Nelsons worked hard here to give it satisfying coherence. Ultimately, it was pure Dvorak.
Daily Telegraph (5 stars)
Mr. Hough became the latest champion of the [Dvorak Piano Concerto with] crystalline, impeccably voiced playing. Leisurely pacing allowed myriad details, like the Czech-inflected rhythms and melodies of the boisterous finale, to emerge with impressive nuance. Mr. Hough brought an alluring warmth and lyricism to the slow movement.
New York Times
Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with Stephen Hough as soloist [...] had been a performance of such startling freshness and clarity that one of the most familiar of all 19th-century piano concertos seemed totally reimagined, with the sweep and vigour supplied by [Andris] Nelsons and the [CBSO] as the perfect foil to Hough’s cool brilliance.
A great performance can make you enjoy a piece you don’t really like. That was the case for me with the Liszt [1st concerto], thanks to the musicianship of pianist Stephen Hough. After projecting a huge roar of sound at the beginning, he served up melodic material with gently glowing tones of breathtaking beauty. Phrases were stretched and contracted with rare eloquence; he practically made us beg for quietly resolving downbeats.There was plenty of daredevil virtuosity, though, the finale driven to a hair-raising close.
Dallas Morning News
[In Schumann's Carnaval] the challenges are many: specific character has to be delineated in each piece, considerable technical hurdles must be surmounted, yet the music demands impetuosity. [In his new CD] Hough conveys all this stunningly in one of the most fully realised performances of this oft-recorded masterwork that I know.
The greatest living interpreter of the [Rachmaninov] concertos
In Stephen Hough [the Dvorak Piano Concerto] may have found its ideal champion. He brought disciplined tempos that clarified and strengthened the sense of form, architectural balance and gravitas, and the brilliant precision of his playing brought vividness and excitement to passages in the outer movements that otherwise can come across as somewhat formulaic note-spinning [...] In Hough's dazzlingly capable hands it was intricate, cogent and engrossing.
Sydney Morning Herald
Passionate climactic virtuosity sketched with brilliant clarity [...] a performance of superb continuity unfolding the music in all its intense beauty and transience.
Sydney Morning Herald
He stepped away from well-worn paths in this familiar work [Beethoven 5th concerto] and brought to it a passion and vision that made it as
if one was hearing it for the first time. Hough was transfixing in his muscle-flexing power, intensity and heightened colour. The middle movement, especially, was incomparably beautiful.
Everything Hough touches these days gives us much cause for rejoicing. His status as an artist has grown over the past several decades; he is now a world-class musician, joining the ranks of the select few at the top.
American Record Guide
Inspired, perhaps, by the wind and rain, Hough whipped up a ferocious storm of his own, delivering a volatile, dramatic performance [of Liszt's 1st concerto at the Blossom Festival]. Out of a relatively short piece, he crafted a kind of epic. And yet never did he sacrifice his silken touch or fail to engage the [Cleveland] orchestra in sparkling conversation. His Adagio was the musical embodiment of the calm all on the grounds were surely waiting for.
The Plain Dealer
[Central to his new CD is] Hough’s own Sonata [which is] rich in textural variety and harmonic colour, full of massive chunks of sound like sculpted blocks of marble lit from within, and quirky, obsessive toccatas that whirl by like a runaway roundabout that keeps changing direction. It is unsettling, playful and original [and] hearing a masterful pianist performing his own work is a special experience in itself.
BBC Music Magazine
Mr. Hough showed the careful balance of scrupulous clarity and impetuous poetry for which he is known and loved [The Liszt Sonata] holds no surprises or substantial challenges for him; its double-octave outbursts, gnarly fugues and mercurial flights seem to come easy. Just as impressive, though, is the dramatic potency that Mr. Hough continues to wring from pages he presumably has traversed countless times. The music felt impactful, startling and, yes, new. At the end, the audience responded with a tumultuous ovation.
New York Times
He can power through man-eating Liszt and Tchaikovsky concerti with the best of them. But for Hough God is mostly in the details - the beautifully articulated inner voices, the crystaline clarity of lyrical passages, the precision of the pedal. From the moment he walks onstage, erect and beautifully turned-out in a dark Nehru jacket, he radiates a higher sense of purpose.
Throughout the recital, it was evident that Hough is both a pianist and a composer, his playing shot through with an awareness of harmonic colour and formal shape central to the musical sensibility of those who themselves create. In all, this was one of the major musical events of the Calgary concert season, a treat for an audience able to taste all that is delicious in the art of piano performance from a pianist of individuality, passion and utter commitment to the highest values in music.
A stellar rendition of the Mendelssohn concerto, as [Hough] matched nimble technique with colorful phrasing and, most important, a rich, gorgeous tone.
If you're going to play with a soloist as virtuosic as Hough, you had best bring your A Game. Hough brought his A Game on Thursday. Sergei Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was an excellent showcase for so many things this English pianist can do. Bouncing from mood to mood, it's like a film in which one brilliant actor plays 24 roles, each a distinct and colorful character. Making dramatic transitions from light and lithe to grave and weighty and touching upon myriad moods between, Hough was electrifying.
[Rachmaninov's Paganini Rhapsody was] exciting from start to finish and full of deft touches: the gossamer filigree in Variation 11, the subtle phrasing of the sly minuet in 12 and the heartfelt sweetness in the phrasing of the famous 18th Variation. [...] Wildly applauded by the audience.
Hough brings an unusually wide range of keyboard colour to bear on Brahms's pano writing [in his new recording]. Added to that his complete understanding of the broadest trajectory and subtlest nuances of these [two concertos] is reflected in his subtle flexibility of tempo and dynamics to underline expressive points that in some other performances go for nothing. Above all he plays with a real sense of discovery, as if dazzled by the freshness of Brahms's invention.
In the D minor concerto I was especially impressed by Hough's seraphic, deeply thoughtful treatment of the slow movement cadenza and the sense of fantasy and caprice he brings to the final rondo. In the B flat the delicacy and playfulness of the finale are a delight, while there is an unusually reflective, even musing quality to some of his playing in the scherzo, and the slow movement is as affecting as I have ever heard it [...] This admirable set richly deserves its five stars.
BBC Music Magazine
Who knows how Liszt must have attacked the piano part; but it would be difficult to imagine pianism of darker terror, fiercer energy or more eye-blinding brilliance than that presented by Stephen Hough. As [Liszt's 1st concerto] grows within him, Hough’s performance becomes ever more expansive and authoritative [...] This was a thrillingly physical and intensely musical performance.
Pianist Stephen Hough provided the fireworks in the Liszt [1st concerto] a whiff of the demonic [...] a radiant, singing tone.
The impression I have here [in Hough's new recording of both Brahms concertos] is of readings which have divested themselves of excess baggage and are lighter on their feet, in the finales especially, which are opened up to areas of freshness and playfulness which Schumann too liked to inhabit. Weight is never a problem; there is just a greater variety of it.
I ended up delighted by and in complete admiration of Hough's boldness. He has become a warmer player of increased range in Brahms and unafraid to take risks.
With all the audience energy coming at him after a Tchaikovsky concerto Friday night, Stephen Hough could have kept feeding the atmosphere with a highly charged Russian encore [...] but he honed expectations on a pool of introspection: Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat, Op. 9, No. 2.
You know the one - the elegant waltz hanging on simple architecture. Here, spooling out in spare, steady harmonic changes, it's all about small expressive gestures and tone. Hough mastered a particularly difficult paradox of perspective. His right hand drew pearls of quiet, and all the while the distance in Verizon Hall seemed to shrink away.
He kept doing that. Even in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor, the British pianist created an enormous presence for his sound without a trace of percussiveness. This was quite a feat in the opening, where the saturated sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra laid out an expansive melody while Hough projected over it handily.
[In his new recording of both Brahms concertos] Hough brings his famed dexterity to the bravura passages, but never sounds glitzy or showy. Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of both performances is his chamber-music-like interplay with the excellent Mozarteumorchester’s soloists [...] These familiar and oft-recorded works sound fresh minted. Brahms’s concertos have rarely sounded more brilliant, energetic and innovative.
The Sunday Times
Britain’s keyboard wizard has been regularly programming Brahms in recent concerts and his performances here [on his new recording of the two concertos for Hyperion] show his usual thoughtfulness, elegance and brilliance. He’s especially striking in the mature expanse of the second concerto, often flecking solo phrases with miniature hesitations as if pausing to savour the taste of a choice biscuit. [Its] fleet finale is entrancingly light and sparkling. As for the slow movement, Hough’s penetrating playing, so limpid and pensive, is still echoing in my head.
In releasing the two Brahms concertos together, Stephen Hough immediately invites comparisons with the finest recordings of the last half century [...] It's a measure of Hough's achievement that his accounts belong in such company.
[In] Stephen Hough's splendid new recordings of both Brahms concertos [...] he employs all the muscle these most arduous works demand, while losing none of the poetry. Some of his passage work is revelatory, with phrasing that is imaginative, but never mannered [...] a set fit to be placed alongside Emil Gilels's one at the very top of the tree.
Mail on Sunday
Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No 1 [...] dazzles with just the sort of legerdemain, fizzing fountains of figuration and dissolving dreams that Hough's deft fingers and brain delight in re-creating. Hough [with his] immaculate timing, pacing and placing of every note, both as glittering soloist and filigree accompanist, is the living advocate of the work.
Stephen Hough, that titan of the keyboard, dispatched Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No 1 with such dazzling ease he hardly seemed to put a hair out of place. There's nothing showy about Hough; his astonishing technique is put entirely at the service of the music. Whether he's tenderly caressing the exquisite slow movement or dashing through the quicksilver finale, it's always all about the piece, not the performer.
But the highlight of the [First Night of the Proms] was undoubtedly Stephen Hough, whose remarkable muse injected Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with both pensive depths and jazzy panache. No matter what the hemi-demi-semi-quaver provocation, Hough gave us syncopated solemnity, haunting evil and that ‘greatest hit’ melody as though he were consorting with live demons and negotiating his way through the rollercoaster of romance to the summit of love. It was transcendent; Hough was wild, witty and inspired; the crowd roared.
Phew, what a scorcher. No, not a packed-to-the-rafters Albert Hall in a heatwave [...] I mean the British pianist Stephen Hough's electrifying performances of [Rachmaninov's and Lutoslawski's Paganini-inspired pieces]. If just half the soloists in the 74 Proms to come can match Hough for wit, delicacy and the scintillating illusion of the music being improvised on the spot, it will be a memorable summer.
In Hough’s hands, even the most hackneyed variation in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini emerged with pristine freshness. He knows exactly how to project his sound in this piano-resistant space, and all the effects worked as they should – from sparkling passage-work to expansive lyricism – and all with an intimate feel.
Rachmaninov never played at a Prom, it turns out, but Stephen Hough was to my mind the next best thing, turning in a performance of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini that was a mixture of pianistic flair and sublimation of individual ego to the will of the composer [...] A thoroughly deserved standing ovation for the soloist.
Like a sorcerer bewitching his audience, pianist Stephen Hough dazzled in both of the Paganini-inspired showpieces [on the First Night of the Proms].
The grandeur of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto [was] played by the soloist, Stephen Hough, with heart-warming skill and strength and intelligence
In Stephen Hough’s elegantly dappled account of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2 [his] golden touch was copiously visible.
Stephen Hough was the soloist in the Brahms [Fist Piano Concerto] – forthright, passionate and technically flawless [...] the slow movement and finale were exceptional in their intensity and poise.
[...] and, best of all, Stephen Hough in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, his fleet-fingered tenderness and highly charged energies re-creating with startling integrity the imagination of a composer in his early twenties.
Hough’s qualities are well-known; a bravura technique allied to a brilliantly pure and limpid tone. Even at Brahms’s most thunderous climaxes, Hough pealed out, bell-like; his power comes without heaviness. In the deep quiet of the Adagio, his playing seemed possessed of a profound inner stillness that communicated itself to, and spread through, the orchestra.
Mr. Hough has established himself as an extraordinary pianist, a thinking person’s virtuoso. [His Second Sonata] is an exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived for the piano [...] Mr. Hough opened his program with beautifully subdued and ethereal accounts of Chopin’s Two Nocturnes (Op. 27). He then turned to Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 in F minor [...] Mr. Hough conveyed the mix of youthful hubris and visionary daring in the piece, playing with dashing vitality and color. He ended with a wonderfully impetuous, sometimes wild but captivating account of Schumann’s “Carnaval.” Coming after his own daunting piano sonata, this virtuosic Schumann work seemed almost easy by contrast, at least as played here by the tireless Mr. Hough.
New York Times
Arguably the finest, certainly the most intelligent and technically impressive British pianist on the circuit [...] a Hough performance could fairly be described as the aural equivalent of making you look, not necessarily through noise but through relentlessly intelligent alertness.
New York Times
At the heart of the program was Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2, in a lithe and alert performance featuring soloist Stephen Hough. Hough - who responded to applause with a gorgeous encore of Chopin's Nocturne in E-Flat, Op. 9, No. 2 - proved particularly adept at following the interpretive shifts in this variegated score, adopting an athletic approach to the passagework at one point, then swiveling to produce playing of utmost intimacy and lyricism.
San Francisco Chronicle
[...] as glowing and compelling a performance of the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A as I’ve heard.
The spring in his step, the perfect posture, the gleam on those patent leather shoes: there is pleasure in simply watching Stephen Hough arrive on stage. But that is nothing compared with the joy when this master pianist, composer and artistic all-rounder sits down at the keys seconds later. His current touring recital reached the Barbican on Saturday, and found him at the top of his form. Whether he played Schumann, Brahms, Chopin or himself, jaws dropped at the subtleties of touch and articulation, the poetic phrasing, emotional volatility, the easy summoning of rainbow sonorities across the instrument’s range. Most of the January coughers fell silent too.
In terms of time, the major exhibit was Brahms’ 40-minute Sonata No 3 in F minor, an epic of towering architecture and romantic imagination, with a sound world that suggests at times that we’re hearing the piano transcription of a symphony. In Hough’s hands, Brahms’ semi-orchestral thickets found a new clarity, while leaner textures glowed with a rare light. The slow movement best showcased Hough’s fiery yet delicate art, with quiet undemonstrative playing followed by limpid reverie, then passionate intensity — a combustible emotional cocktail. Whatever the mood, we sat riveted.
For piano writing of more open brilliance, Hough offered Chopin’s two Op 27 Nocturnes, with tenderness and violence cheek by jowl, and Schumann’s Carnaval, its kaleidoscope of character pieces dispatched in one mesmerising sweep.
Yet the work that lodged most in my mind was the one that he didn’t play from memory — his own Sonata No 2, written last year. It bears the description “notturno luminoso”, but the night hours in question prove even more disturbed than Chopin’s.
Hough’s programme note conjures up neon lights, sleeplessness, the glowering alarm clock — typical torments of any musician marooned in an unfriendly hotel room. The opening sharp-note clamour may bring Messiaen to mind, but Hough quickly goes his own way, juggling with wild panache his different colours, piano registers and modes of attack. At the same time these 17 jolting minutes of nocturnal fretting share enough threads to form a convincing, compelling structure. Hough navigated the Sonata’s turmoil with almost shocking force, but still had energy left for the brisk, crisp walk offstage. Very impressive. Even breathtaking
The Times (5 stars)
Classical audiences expect their musicians to be one-trick ponies, too busy practising to nurture any other talent. But the most glaring exception is pianist Stephen Hough, whose credentials as a composer shine ever brighter. In the unforgiving company of Chopin, Brahms and Schumann, his own work didn't merely hold its own; it glowed.
[...] Hough's own Second Sonata, premiered last autumn, is entitled notturno luminoso, and it shone the harsh neon of sleepless cities into the programme's nocturnal theme – no doubt we have jetlag to thank for Hough's inspiration here. It opens and closes with harshly sonorous chimes; in between, Hough creates a restless musical maze that gains momentum until it becomes a seemingly unstoppable toccata. For all that those dazzling chimes recall Messiaen, Hough's voice in this piece is distinctively his own, as evocative and assured as his actual playing.
Our greatest living pianist
Mail on Sunday
Stephen Hough is one of the very greatest pianists of our time [...] not only a pianist, but an interpreter in the most noble sense of the term, a voyager to the imagination of infinity, leading us into his world.
You'll seldom find a performance that more ably expresses the essence of the romantic ideal than what Hough offered at the Ordway Center on Tuesday night. [He] exhibited exceptional emotional range, exquisite technique and a storyteller's skill for making each movement an engrossing short story. [...] His interpretation of the Brahms 3rd sonata was full of tension and thunder, a lullaby giving way to a nightmare, a wild waltz seemingly in need of an exorcist, even the most frolicsome moments bearing a grave undertow.
The romantics clearly influenced Hough's Second Sonata, which bears the title, "Notturno luminoso." Co-commissioned by the Schubert Club, it was premiered last month, but was given a riveting reprise at the Ordway. It's an uneasy confluence of anxious fear and dark foreboding, a nocturne built around night terrors and urban alienation. While Hough gave magnificent voice to the romantics, this work expanded the palette to employ some very contemporary colors.
All of Hough's interpretations had a "big picture" feel, as if he were acting as psychologist for the composers, bringing ideas and insights into play that were often astoundingly original. Never were his skills more admirable than on Schumann's gallery of 23 distinctly different characters, "Carnaval." [...] Hough stirred listeners so that they accorded him the quickest and loudest standing ovation found at a Schubert Club recital for quite some time.
Stephen Hough seems to have reached a plateau where his colossal keyboard mastery is beyond doubt.
In Clair de Lune and Chaminade's once ubiquitous Autumne, now rarely heard, Hough conjures up a heart-catching melancholy that put me in mind of Cherkassky. I can't offer higher praise. If anyone wants to hear how to make a piano sing they should listen to [Hough's new French Album]
Stephen Hough joined [the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra] for a rare performance of Tchaikovsky's lesser-known Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op 56. It is not a concerto for the faint-hearted - for performer or audience. Hough's fiery-paced outer movements alternated intense lyricism with passage work of hypnotic brilliance, yet even within these technical displays Hough still managed to probe and reveal the underlying music.
The Age (and Sydney Morning Herald)
'Once again, Stephen Hough's consummate artistry extends to inspirational programme building [in his latest CD, 'French Album'] The Fauré group is ravishingly contrasted, with a fluency and limpid style supported by all the necessary backbone and sense of direction to make the composer's tortuous harmonic twists sound as natural as speech … Chez Poulenc, the constantly shifting balance of melody, countermelody and accompaniment is defined by subtlety of dynamic shading, deft pedal work and brushstroke rubato … Even by Hough standards the whole enterprise is a tour-de-force and easily the most satisfying disc of piano music I've encountered so far this year.
International Record Review
With infallible fingers capable, seemingly effortlessly, of the subtlest pianissimo shadings and top-speed, filigree traceries in the treble register as well as a no less impressive ability to conjure massive, double-octave eruptions from the instrument, Hough came across as a man at the top of his game.
The West Australian
Stephen Hough - a treasurable musician of questing intelligence.
When it came to the soloist, Stephen Hough, there was general cause for awe [...] He flashed his fiery way through the Mendelssohn G-minor Concerto [at Loncoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival], his speedy impetuosity possibly justified by the “con fuoco” marking of the opening movement. Ever virtuosic, he sustained clarity and poise, keeping every hemidemisemiquaver in place and focusing lyrical contrasts without tempo distortions.
Seldom do you hear such an explosion of absolute joy at the end of a Seattle Symphony concert. On Thursday evening, the usually decorous audience leapt out of their seats for a shouting, hooting, whistling ovation the moment piano soloist Stephen Hough and the orchestra struck the final chords of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3.
What a performance! The Rachmaninoff is one of the biggest and most demanding of the piano concertos, and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser if the soloist has the necessary technique. In the hands of someone like Hough, the Third is practically an incendiary device, lighting up the hall with gasp-inducing cadenzas that emerge with such brilliance and speed that you wonder afterward, "Did I really hear that?"
Hough surged into the score with dazzling fingerwork of almost impossible clarity and accuracy, backing off in the more lyrical passages and then accelerating like a Formula One racer. But it wasn't merely fast and loud; Hough also illuminated the inner voices of the music, and got a tonal palette out of the piano that was extraordinary in its variety.
[...] Let's hope the Symphony administrators have Hough's management on speed-dial; we just heard more than 2,000 fervent votes for a re-engagement.
The Seattle Times
After the interval [with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra] came Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough as soloist, a big-boned interpretation, immensely exciting in its grandeur and sweep. Hough was formidable in it, darkly intense and intelligent, and confronting its extreme technical demands with exceptional power and dexterity.
[Stephen Hough brought] down the house with phenomenal performances of two Rachmaninoff concertos [...] His sterling performances reinforce his stature as one of the world's leading exponents of this music.
Hough plays with delicacy and lyricism where it's called for, and to make his sound big with seemingly effortlessness where it's called for [...] His speed and dexterity were nothing short of stunning, but this was all about the music, and never about the technique.
The audience was held rapt throughout, rising to its collective feet when it finished as if jerked up by a string, for a well-deserved standing ovation.
St Louis Post-Dispatch
Precise and controlled, [Hough's] fingers rippled up and down the keyboard shaping phrases with such a light easy touch it was as if they were not in contact with the keys. Rather than pounding out thick fistfuls of chords with lots of body movement, energy seemed to flow calmly through his arms into the piano — invisible electricity powering a massive sound machine.
St Louis Post-Dispatch
Hough gave a performance [of Saint-Saens 5th concerto] full of brilliance and perception. He sang melodies with beautifully direct French style, while he drew thunderous sonorities that could battle with the orchestra. He took the finale at a blistering pace, a thrilling performance that brought the audience to its feet.
Hough and Alsop seemed to take [Liszt's two Concertos] into another dimension. Any idea of this music as meretricious, exhibitionistic camp had at once to be abandoned. These accounts lent Liszt’s invention a startling, even steely quality of high seriousness, without a hint of high earnestness. Hough’s technical mastery, in itself scarcely surpassable, was fused with a manifest intellectual sympathy for Liszt’s way of proceeding, and Alsop made the orchestra a mirror of Hough’s enthusiasm.
The Sunday Times
[In Liszt's Piano Concertos] Hough managed to combine just as much excitement and drama with a keyboard finesse and precision that were sometimes breathtakingly vivid. Two works that can too often seem like Romantic war horses, music to be conquered rather than interpreted, suddenly snapped into sharper focus, with every texture beautifully balanced, every melody elegantly moulded. It all seemed both wonderfully spontaneous and controlled, whether in the sprint for the finishing line in the First Concerto, in which Hough dizzyingly ratcheted up the tempo, or the Second Concerto's transformation of its main theme into a bombastic march, which was kept just on the side of good taste.
Austere and modest of demeanour — no demonstrative gestures of head-flinging for him — Hough is nevertheless one of the most intensely flamboyant performers of Liszt around today. The high-octane energy packed into those octaves at the start of the First Concerto seemed to scatter brilliant light in their wake. And that compressed, compacted energy never let up throughout the entire performance.
Except, that is, where Liszt sinks into song. And even then, the piano’s limpid duetting with solo clarinet and violin had a febrile quality which heightened the emotional temperature. It cooled only in the nocturne of a slow movement. Here Hough was deceptively nonchalant, deep in his own dream. But the coiled anger within his recitative-like awakening showed that his nerves had never slept.
Hough displays an awesome technique. The gradual acceleration of the final movement of the first [Concerto of Liszt] was breathtaking to behold, and the closing presto positively explosive.
If performing Liszt's piano music were an Olympic event (which, given the muscle, stamina and precision it requires, isn't out of the question), Stephen Hough would be a gold medal contender.
Poor old Stephen Hough. The Liszt double. Again! [...] But the trick is to make what have become the stock statements of camp Romanticism into something strange and unfamiliar again. One must reduce these ideas, boiling off the watery accretions, to their essence. Few pianists can do this better than Hough. Few can refashion what can appear to some to have become irredeemable cliches into moments of aural wonder.
The Arts Desk
Hough's awesome pianism meant that the pyrotechnics were delivered with powerful force, but balanced by his poetic shaping of Rachmaninov's lyrical lines and a gossamer touch for the delicate filigree writing. This is a work [the First Concerto] that deserves to be heard more often, but few can get to its core as Hough does.
As well as formidable motor skills, Hough has seductive tactile power, restoring rigour to this wistful but sometimes mushy [Rachmaninov 1st] concerto. His elegant hands flapped and fanned so invisibly fast at times, as in the whirlwind Scherzo, that you lost all sense that he could possibly be restricted to the 10 digits and 54 bones with which the rest of us, manually speaking, make do. In a few million years evolution may catch up with Hough and we'll all be playing with his facility and speed, so it's just a matter of patience.
BROKEN BRANCHES: compositions by Stephen Hough
Although most Gramophone readers know Stephen Hough as one of his generation's foremost pianists, he also trained as a composer and has stepped up his creative output during the past decade. His eclectic tonal style embraces a wide array of influences yet maintains its own personality.
The wonderful trio for piccolo, contrabassoon and piano which opens this disc exploits each wind instrument's registral extremes (especially in the haunting Andante finale's slow, sustained unison lines) as well as Hough's witty melodic interplay (Poulenc's ghost wittily hovers over the proceedings). If anything, piccolo soloist Michael Hasel shines even more in a short solo sonata whose scampering vivace finale contrasts with slower, lyrical wistful writing in the first two movements which makes evocative use of the instrument's lower register.
Bridgewater's 'romantic idyll' subtitle couldn't be more appropriate for this gorgeous, tuneful six-minute bassoon and piano piece, while the five Rilke song-settings Herbstlieder recall Richard Strauss at his more impassioned and intricate. Hough's excellent booklet-notes cite the short, continuous movements of Janacek's On an Overgrown Path as a model for his one-movement Piano Sonata, which contains virtuoso display without the gloss and glitter one usually gets from pianists who compose.
The sad, slowly unfolding elegy for cello and orchestra, The Loneliest Wilderness, showcases Hough's gifts for subtle, transparent orchestration and deploying solo instruments to memorable, democratic effect. In short, Hough's music speaks with substance, fluent ease, confidence and communicative immediacy. That makes him a real composer. It goes without saying that Hough and his colleagues serve up ideal, splendidly engineered performances. A cherishable release.
Stephen Hough continues to bemuse as a pianist so free from difficulty that he can soar, inflect and alter the course of a musical argument at the drop of a hat … He expresses a personality all his own, brilliantly alert to mercurial changes of mood and clearly riding on the crest of a wave of success. With technique honed to a state of diamond-like brilliance, he gives us rapier-like cadenzas and glissandos that flash like summer lightning.
Time and again, Hough's traversals of familiar works are played with such insight, probity and sage musical understanding that we feel almost as if we are hearing them for the first time … Stephen Hough's steady ascent to the summit of his profession exhibits equally supreme mastery of his instrument and the deep humanity from which it has flowered
International Record Review
One of the Liszt bicentenary’s prime releases, from Britain’s greatest living magician of the keyboard ... He also makes one listen afresh to the considerable passages of contemplative music...with his supple, imaginative phrasing, which never distorts the melodic line in the manner of the most self-advertising virtuosos. His vivaces glitter, his agitatos thrill with dramatic éclat, yet essentially he appreciates the songs-without-words that permeate these bravura works.
The Sunday Times
Does the world really need another recording of the Grieg piano concerto? The answer has to be an emphatic yes when the soloist is the barnstorming Stephen Hough, a pianist with the fascinating ability to take a venerable work, strip it of its patina and present it as though for the very first time. This is a wonderfully alert performance, mixing novel tempi with awesome technique and breathtaking, tingling tension [...] Highly recommended.
The program [with the Sydney Symphony continued with] a brilliantly lucid performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto in C, K.467 by Stephen Hough. His playing glowed with clarity, lyrical precision and discreet virtuosity in the first movement, overflowing in the cadenza with a joyous flowering of textural complexity. The famous slow movement was poised and not unduly drawn out, and the finale was brisk, cheeky and impetuous.
Sydney Morning Herald
This recital is nothing short of revelatory [...] in his no-nonsense, almost impassive delivery of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Hough revitalised and transformed the work. The tempi were near perfection, the rubato sections undemonstrative, those familiar rippling triplets poised and imperturbable, enabling him to draw out a duet between two outer voices. Similarly, the Liszt B minor Sonata, a genuflection in this titan's bicentennial year, sounded symphonic, a black-and-white blueprint for some imagined huge orchestral fantasy. Hough presented this warhorse not as some sort of explosion of sonata form, but as a reinvigoration of it. Between these were two lapidary sonatas by Scriabin, his fourth and fifth, cheekily separated by intermission. In barely 20 minutes, Hough drew out unfamiliar colours and perfumes from Scriabin's signature harmonies, transporting his audience on a wild horse-ride of emotion [...]
If I don't hear Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata for another 40 years, I shall be happy knowing that I've probably heard it at its best.
Not only is [Stephen Hough] the finest pianist these islands have produced since Clifford Curzon, he would make any connoisseur's choice for a place among the best half a dozen current practitioners. He isn't just a formidable virtuoso technically, his rigorous musical brain penetrates to the heart of everything he plays.
The Mail on Sunday (5 stars)
[On Hough's new CD] even such famous pieces as the E flat major and D flat major (the so-called “Minute Waltz”) sound fresh-minted by his mercurial hands. His delicious lilt and rubato always seem perfectly judged, and he sweeps us off our feet with the twinkle-fingered brilliance of his dashing F major waltz. More important, he ensures that the minor-key numbers “sing” as well as dance, revealing sensual depths in the music that are needed as respite from the exhilarating breathlessness of the bright, glittering waltzes. Each piece is exquisitely chiselled, sculpted and polished, but Hough never draws attention to technique for its own sake. He seems entirely possessed by the intoxicating spirit of the dance, heady with almost reckless sensory bravado [...] a mesmerising collection.
The Sunday Times (CD of the week)
[In this new CD of the complete Chopin Waltzes] you don’t just hear Hough’s fingers; you hear his soul. The disc begins with the first waltz that Chopin published, in E-flat major: familiar as toast, but poetically refreshed by Hough’s handling. Listen how he lightly hesitates over the pivot note in a phrase, or decelerates with sublime ease at the key architectural points. Only an idiot would play Chopin without any rubato, but there’s still something magical about Hough’s variations in pulse. The Minute Waltz contains one of the best melting moments of all; I could feel my knees giving way. His voicing of polyphony and variety of tone are equally special, with hues cleanly balanced, from diamantine sparkle to moonlit hush [...] After seven tracks of waltzing I briefly felt giddy. But Hough’s art is addictive, and, recovering, I pressed on. For I knew I’d never get my shins kicked, or an ache in the heel: I was dancing with Chopin and one of the world’s top pianists.
In Egyptian heat, the Egyptian Concerto was a triumph. Though a near-capacity crowd sweltered in the Albert Hall, Stephen Hough’s performance of Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto, inspired by the composer’s holiday by the Nile in 1895, was the most mesmerising thing that I have heard at the Proms this summer [...] The work is rounded off by a scorching Molto Allegro that must be the stuff of nightmares for all but the most virtuosic of ivory-ticklers. Hough is that, but so much more. I spent ages trying to figure out how he achieved one passage of exotic bell-like sonorities: some secret alchemy of half-pedalling and weighting chords so that the harmonics jangled like one of John Cage’s prepared pianos. That was complemented by the tranquil beauty he conjured at that movement’s ending, by his stylish, insouciant phrasing (the dapper Saint-Saëns would have loved that), and by the surging vigour of his sprint through the finale, with the BBC Philharmonic and Gianandrea Noseda (in his final month as chief conductor) pursuing like a pack of panting hounds on the scent of a very fleet-footed fox.
The reason why the hall was packed came afterwards, in the form of Saint-Saens’s ‘Egyptian’ piano concerto, with Stephen Hough as soloist [...] Joyfully cantering up and down the keyboard, Hough was comfortably in control of the virtuosity the first movement demanded, but the second movement – tentative, exploratory, and wonderfully eloquent – made one wonder why this work had so long been ignored. Saint-Saens had the misfortune to be too prolific, to live too long, and to make eternal enemies by denigrating Debussy, but it’s time he had his revival. And in that, this work – with Hough as its velvet-pawed advocate – should loom large.
If ever a pianist could transform virtuoso showiness into tough intellectual argument, it's Stephen Hough. Saint-Saëns's Fifth Piano Concerto is something of a Hollywood vision of a romantic piano concerto but he gave it muscle. Its opening is sweet, almost trite, but Hough played it with disarming dignity. Thereafter he juggled moods - a twinkle in the eye one moment, sombre the next - with the legerdemain of a magician [...] As the final movement raced towards climax, Hough unleashed the hyperactive rhythms and cascading notes with almost orgiastic delight. The BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda had to race to keep up in what was a breathtaking performance.
London Evening Standard
[Stephen Hough] at times left the orchestra panting in his wake. The middle movement is full of memories of a trip Saint-Saëns made down the Nile, and here Hough displayed a fabulously refined touch, evoking sultry nights in sounds so exotic it was hard to believe they were coming from that shiny black Steinway.
The Daily Telegraph
['Other Love Songs' composed by Stephen Hough] form a new song cycle of outstanding achievement [...] Hough finds a language, a style, a startling response for the unique and elusive scent of each poem. There are solos and various pairings of voices, interwoven with often surprising and always thrilling piano writing.
BBC Music Magazine
Hough's playing [on his new CD of Chopin Waltzes] has such authority and panache, its balance between virtuosity and vividly communicated expression so finely judged, that every perfectly scaled moment is as intensely realised as every other. Few other pianists around today play Chopin with as much understanding and poised mastery as this.
The Guardian (5 stars)
Honouring the bicentenary of Franz Liszt's birth, pianist Stephen Hough made the composer's B Minor Sonata the culmination of this recital. For lesser mortals, it would have been enough to ease themselves in with a low-key sequence of works, but not Hough. In his questing, nonchalantly didactic manner, he created a whole programme of what he called "strange sonatas", each as far from conventional sonata form as possible, but nevertheless tightly constructed.
Beethoven subtitled his "Moonlight" Sonata Op 27 No 2, Quasi una fantasia, acknowledging its difference. Hough gave the famous first movement a deeply reflective quality and the finale a ferocious intensity. After this came an equally intense performance of Janáček's Sonata IX "From the Street", written in the aftermath of bloodshed at a political protest and couched in emotional musical language which itself hit the solar plexus. Straddling the interval were the fourth and fifth sonatas of Scriabin, again stunningly delivered with a characteristic balance of virtuosic extravagance and poetic languor.
Yet these were as nothing by comparison with the authority Hough brought to the Liszt, a tour de force. Using the sustaining pedal to make the opening descending scale sound not just darkly mysterious but startlingly modern, the importance of Liszt to the 20th century was immediately pointed up [...] Hough's colossal power brought out the grandeur of Liszt's single architectural span, while his crystalline figuration allowed every tiniest note to sing. At the same time, the intellectual rigour was tempered by an aura of fantasy. Rather reassuringly, smudges in the Beethoven had showed Hough to be human and not infallible but, in defining Liszt's genius so emphatically, he also proved his own.
The Guardian (5 stars)
[Tchaikovsky's 2nd concerto] requires a pianist of preternatural technique [...] Hough is spectacularly built for the piece, whose demands are off the charts; that he could offer a conquering vision while maintaining the score's essential sense of struggle was in itself a feat [...] His technical mastery made a case for Tchaikovsky as Liszt's equal pianistically, and perhaps even in terms of pushing the boundaries of traditional harmony. On a purely visceral level, he held his own against the [Philadelphia Orchestra]; his third-movement belltones brushed past easy bombast to pure jubilance.
Celebrations of this year’s Liszt bicentenary are unlikely to get more exciting than last Sunday’s performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Stephen Hough the dazzling soloist [...] this was quite the most arresting account of Liszt’s warhorse I have heard. Hough is a pianist with virtuosity to spare, even when it comes to Liszt, and he put those spare pyrotechnics to good use here in supplying rare lightness, wit and musical depth.
The star turn of the evening was Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, with Stephen Hough the grandiose, boisterous soloist (that’s what Liszt asked for), playing with a sense of spontaneity and abandon that was simply spine-tingling.
In Liszt's Concerto No 1 [the Budapest Festival Orchestra] could barely compete with Stephen Hough's piano. Hough's performance was tremendous, balancing muscle with intelligence, stamina with wit. Showy flourishes were left hanging like questions or dispatched with insouciance; the finale was carried by mounting exhilaration. Hough wound down with Liszt's Andantino, a brief and beautifully introspective encore.
English pianist Stephen Hough joined the Hungarian orchestra in a performance [of Liszt's concerto no. 1] that matched barnstorming zeal with passages of unusual delicacy. Lucky the soloist who is announced with an orchestral introduction of such proud unanimity as Fischer provided, but Hough repaid the compliment with playing of inimitable class. It is unlikely the concerto will race to a more exciting conclusion in 2011 than it did here.
There are few romantic, “golden age”, stylists of Stephen Hough’s calibre around – and even fewer to whom the Hungarians would entrust their Liszt. Hough returned the compliment with a dazzling performance of the 1st Piano Concerto. The temperament of soloist and orchestra was hurled down like a gauntlet in the opening flourishes and thereafter Hough tossed off the fabulous embellishments with that very particular sense of the improvisatory, little turns and throw-away ornamentation beautifully dovetailed into the rubato, the sound always matched to the phrasing. The dreamy slow section was so airy, so translucent, that it hardly seemed possible that this could be the effect of hammers striking strings - but then conversely the barnstorming finale was rhythmically, percussively, a marching band with flashing double-trills and ringing upper-register pyrotechnics.
That master pianist Stephen Hough and Fischer’s [Budapest Festival] orchestra couldn’t stop Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 from seeming the preposterous showman’s bauble that it is. But they certainly made it enjoyable. Not one to shrink from romantic excess, Hough pitched into Liszt’s thunderous cascades with almost frightening conviction. No hammering, though: his phrasing was poised, his touch supple enough to switch without strain to the limpid twinkles often required at a crotchet’s notice. The Liszt who made women faint could be found easily in the adagio, trembling with filigree decorations. But the multicoloured rampage soon resumed in a performance of tremendous power.
[Stephen Hough and Mark Elder] played the often-distorted First Concerto with the requisite bravura and with winning freshness. The orchestra mirrored Hough's power, flexibility and delicacy without exaggeration [...] This was strong Tchaikovsky, of our time in refinement and clarity, but with breathtaking excitement.
Stephen Hough, in a very different but no less deeply personal way, plays [the Sonata in B flat D. 960] as if communing with himself before a small audience of friends late at night. Ultra-refined in texture, detail and sonority, he affirms his claim that ‘Schubert’s individualism unlike Beethoven’s, is more a withdrawal into solitude’ [...] His performance has no less aptly been described as of a rarefied and mystical beauty.
Stephen Hough is one of the handful of keyboard artists with the technical arsenal to handle this comically difficult music, and Wednesday night he performed every note of the original version [of Tchaikovsky's 2nd concerto] in all its dizzying glory, [his] fire and improvisatory sense of abandon producing one of the most thrilling feats of pianistic derring-do heard downtown in recent years.
The finale with its pinball-shot main theme and piling up of complexities was edge-of-the-seat thrilling with Hough living dangerously by accelerating the already-fast tempo at the coda and somehow managing to pull it off magnificently.
Chicago Classical Review
Over his 30-year career Hough has revived the tradition of the bravura pianist [...] and it is a thrill to hear a player of his technical abilities in these showpieces.
Chicago Sun Times
Hough's pianism justified the standing ovations that are routine at Orchestra Hall [...] This was stellar Tchaikovsky playing – heroic, flexible and poetic.
Hough counts among the most thoughtful interpreters around, but it was his massive technique and showmanship that was front and center in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 [with the Colorado Symphony].
The first movement is a fingers-flying showpiece with two blazing cadenzas, which Hough described in a recent blog post as "the composer leaning over the top of the edge of the precipice, close to hysteria yet still fully in control of his materials". He brought appropriate doses of precision, power and flash to that section, and then nicely balanced those fireworks in the slow second movement with a gently voluptuous romanticism.
Stephen Hough's superlative rendition of the Edvard Grieg Piano Concerto, [...] one of the world's best-loved concertos and a bulwark of musical Romanticism, proved just as ideal a showcase [...] From his emphatic flourish in its famous opening, he played with soulful warmth and an individuality that made a familiar work sound fresh and spontaneous. His graceful phrasing and artful modulations of tempo and volume made the most of the work's melodic beauty and bountiful spirit.
Rising to the first movement's epic cadenza, he rendered it with intense focus and cumulative power that were spellbinding. Following the prayerful lyricism of his Adagio movement, he brought exuberant vigor and bounce to the dance-life final movement, asserting its buoyant folk flavoring.
Mr. Hough is a comprehensively skilled pianist and probing musician with an inquisitive streak [who] has the technique to play anything, as was clear from his prodigious performance of Liszt’s phenomenally difficult Sonata in B minor, which ended the recital.
Yet it is easy to take his virtuosity for granted because he looks so relaxed and loose, even impassive, when he plays. Tall and trim and always sitting upright, he seemed completely unruffled throughout the mighty Liszt work, as he easily dispatched bursts of double octaves, brought uncanny clarity to spiraling passagework and delineated the tangled voices of the daunting fugue in the final extended segment. Here was a rare performance that reconciled the contrary elements of this single-movement, 30-minute sonata: the wild fantasy, the inexorable sweep, the unorthodox design [...] After intermission he played Scriabin’s experimental, boldly modern Fifth Sonata (1907) and captured all of the music’s demonic exuberance in his breathtaking performance. Many pianists would conclude a recital with this virtuosic workout. Mr. Hough used it as an inspired warm-up to the Liszt.
New York Times
The brilliant Stephen Hough joined the [Oregon Symphony] for a crystalline, bracing performance of Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1. They took the piece at a good clip, which made Hough's precise touch in the virtuoso passages all the more amazing and his solo turn in the slow section enthralling -- suddenly we were drawn into an intimate recital, and everyone, including the orchestra, was mesmerized. It would have been great to hear Hough's penetrating intelligence and profound musicality in a longer, weightier piece, but you take your monumental experiences where you can get them.
Stephen Hough's dazzling performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, concluding Thursday's Seattle Symphony concert, [...] was greeted with an instant standing ovation of rare unanimity and vociferous enthusiasm [...] Hough played mightily, and perfectly caught the spirit of the piece, which is a spirit of rhetoric rather than drama.
The trump card of the evening was Hough’s take on Franz Liszt’s familiar First Piano Concerto. Hough specializes in Liszt; his general approach is the antithesis of the smash-and-crash method that produces cheap and/or trivial results. Hough emphasizes Liszt’s lyric writing, with a touch that immediately suggests bel canto at its best.
He keeps the tone sparkling and light for much of the work; then, when the febrile brilliance of the piece does take flame, the effect is dramatic, unconventional, and absolutely convincing. I’d go so far as to say that if you haven’t heard this oft-maligned concerto in Hough’s interpretation, you haven’t heard the piece at all.
The pianist Stephen Hough travels the world with concertos and recitals, writes about theology and faith, and is an indefatigable blogger. But that’s not enough. He composes as well — and his latest work, a song cycle called Herbstlieder, was given its world premiere at the Oxford Lieder Festival.
These five autumnal settings of the poetry of Rilke are a rich harvesting of much that has played into Hough’s own musical life. There are shades of Zemlinsky and Schoenberg in the harmonic palette and aching leaps of the first song, Herbsttag; the following Klage seems like a long-missing extra song from Schubert’s Schwanengesang; and spectres of Mahler and Richard Strauss drift through the final two pieces, Bestürz mich, Musik and Herbst.
And yet these songs speak with a distinctive and free voice of their own — one which is beautifully sensitive to the inflection of Rilke’s verse, is not afraid of white space and silence, and which gives the pianist just as much to work on as the singer. Alisdair Hogarth proved the point, flexing his pianistic muscle in rhapsody, in bare chords and in ripe, overflowing figuration.
Jacques Imbrailo’s performance was outstanding: this baritone’s recent successes in opera have perhaps blinded both audiences and entrepreneurs to his potential for being not only a good, but a great lieder singer too.
The Oxford Lieder Festival celebrates lieder as such, but it is also determined to commission and present the newest of new song. Hough’s cycle will be a valuable addition to the repertoire.
[...] it was a substantial new song cycle which grabbed attention. Stephen Hough is celebrated as an international pianist, a wearer of fine hats, a bit of a "nose" olfactorily-speaking, a tweeter and blogger extraordinaire [...] He was in Oxford, however, as a composer, in a stimulating concert by the Prince Consort. His settings of five Rilke poems for baritone and piano, gathered under the title Herbstlieder (Autumn Songs), has bold musical reach, wit and expressive variety [...]
Jacques Imbrailo, an acclaimed Billy Budd at Glyndebourne this year, conveyed the mood shifts from melancholic and autumnal, tempestuous, to overpowering (especially in "Bestürz mich, Musik" – "Overwhelm me, music"). Singing in German, his performance, and that of pianist Alisdair Hogarth, had vitality and conviction, and won enthusiastic applause.
Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor was the centrepiece, and both Hough and the conductor Lan Shui focused on the exciting physicality of the work: in scintillating piano figuration, elegant and tender turns of phrase, and a momentum you could feel in the viscera. As accompanist, Hough was an exquisite chamber musician; as soloist and leader, he forged a way through the finale, holding back the galloping octaves with a perfection of timing that brought an irresistible smile to the face.
Then there was the Grieg Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough as soloist. Hough and Noseda both have a talent for making us rethink the familiar, and this was a superb achievement – high romantic rather than mutedly gracious, Brahmsian in its weight and punch, and formidable in its intensity.
[Louis] Langrée conducted the [Mostly Mozart] Festival Orchestra in the final program of the season [...] featuring the splendid British pianist Stephen Hough. The concert opened with Mr. Hough’s articulate, elegant and fresh account of the well-known Concerto No. 21. Mr. Hough wrote his own cadenzas for the concerto — models of how to make an impression through inventive musical touches and playful harmonic adventures, rather than just showing off one’s virtuosity.
After receiving a warm and well-deserved ovation Mr. Hough played a solo encore, a beautifully direct and tender account of Schumann’s “Träumerei.” Schumann was a great Mozart lover, and it’s a Schumann year. So tucking the piece into an all-Mozart program was a fine idea.
New York Times
A few months shy of his 49th birthday, Hough has solidified his place as one of today's leading pianists, the kind of meaningful artist who is likely to transcend his time to be remembered when lists are compiled decades from now of the great pianists of the early 21st century.
[Brahms' 1st concerto] is routinely featured on orchestral programs, but there was nothing routine about this involving, high-energy version. Rather than try to impose his will on the music, Hough met this piece very much on its terms, his comfortable, organic interpretation deftly conveying its easy romanticism. Especially notable were his daringly deliberate yet unquestionably effective tempos in his delicate, whispered take on the slow movement.
The new friend was pianist Stephen Hough, who will lead another generation of listeners into similar delirium [...] Hough joined [Bramwell] Tovey for an exceptionally poetic and powerful account of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Hough didn’t rely on razzle-dazzle to beguile an audience. Instead, he played with quiet, probing lyricism, nevertheless turning up the power whenever it was needed. He proved incapable of routine — yet never indulged in finicky or misjudged statements. He made this familiar music sound newly written. Welcome him back anytime.
Los Angeles Times
The [piano] sings beautifully on “Chopin: Late Masterpieces,” Stephen Hough’s new recording for the Hyperion label. “Largo,” “cantabile,” and “sostenuto” are three markings that Chopin appends to the slow movement of the Third Piano Sonata—broad, singing, sustained. They imply that the movement is an homage to bel-canto opera, and in particular to Bellini, whom Chopin knew and admired. Hough’s playing of the opening melody suggests that he has thought hard about how it would sound if it were sung by a soprano: in place of the clean articulation that you find on most recordings, he adopts a free, flowing manner, so that one prominent motif—an eighth note followed by a sixteenth-note triplet—is rendered almost as a four-note turn, with the first note held a little longer than the others. The manner is at once regal and inward, as in Bellini’s “Casta diva.” When Hough reaches a high B, he slows for a moment, as a soprano would, for the sake of both expressivity and caution. I’ve gone through various canonical Chopin recordings—including accounts of the Third Sonata by Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti, and Arthur Rubinstein—and found none on which the melody coalesces into such an acutely vocal shape.
[Hough] is known as a rare kind of visionary virtuoso [and] what I cherish in Hough’s playing is the sense that he is making up the music as he goes, even as he realizes the written score with uncommon precision. In his hands, the introduction to the Largo—a jagged descending figure, in sharp dotted rhythms—comes across not as a portentous announcement but as a sudden thought, a bolt from the blue.
Alex Ross: The New Yorker
All eyes and ears Saturday were understandably fixed on Stephen Hough, the pianist who emerged victorious from three rounds with a Brahms concerto and the Cleveland Orchestra [...] Of the few artists truly equal to Brahms' mammoth Piano Concerto No. 1, even fewer bring to it his blend of grandeur, tenderness, and sheer physical strength.
From the beginning, Hough was in charge, driving the tempo amidst a galvanized orchestra and enunciating the composer's boldest declarations with steely intensity. Yet when Brahms turned rhapsodic, the pianist was ready with lyrical sweep and depth. So, too was the horn, who had a prominent solo. Even more combustible was the final Rondo. Besides an aggressive tempo, Hough's performance sustained an element of risk, keeping the orchestra on its toes and listeners on edge.
But it was the Adagio Saturday that revealed what Hough's most fetching side. Unlike the outer movements, his reading of the concerto's core was all about expression and longing.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
A longer stretch of quite transcendent mastery, and a continuation of the French theme, were provided by the pianist Stephen Hough [...] The Bach [was] dispatched with spectacular bravura and rock-like (organ-like) sonority [...] and the account of [Chopin's] B minor sonata exemplified that intermingled high intelligence, emotional warmth and monumental virtuosity that is this pianist’s stock in trade.
The Sunday Times
Alfred Cortot’s glittering transcription of Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue made a surprisingly heavyweight opener; Hough leaving the opening declamations to hang, pealing, in the air [of Lichfield Cathedral]. The effect was stark and ritualistic rather than the expected high-gothic extravaganza.
In César Franck’s tremendous Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Hough held tight control of Franck’s vaulting structure while still managing to bring out an almost impressionistic range of keyboard colours. The same qualities made his Chopin B minor Sonata a thing of both melting expression and utterly convincing formal grandeur.
And [Stephen Hough] was in the congregation the next morning for the first opportunity to hear his [Missa Mirabilis] complete.
This is the work that was with Hough in 2006 when he survived a near-fatal car crash; but even without that knowledge, its glowing romanticism and joyous sense of spiritual conviction would have made their mark.
With its soaring treble lines, thunderous organ solos and gorgeous, ecstatic dissonances, it reminded this listener above all of Janacék’s Glagolitic Mass. Would it be sacrilege to hope for a concert performance?
Stephen Hough is the finest British pianist since the late great Clifford Curzon [and] his quality shines through in every bar of two outstanding new Hyperion issues.
Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto is so frequently abused by crash, bang, wallop pianists that it's easy to forget what beautiful music it contains. Hough leaves you in no doubt, playing with a brilliance that conveys delicacy of feeling as well as virtuosity and power. He is hugely helped by his conductor, Osmo Vanska, and the excellent Minnesota Orchestra [...]
No great artist presents the same face every time, and Hough's playing on his Chopin CD is very different; coolly objective with no spray-on romantic excess, but, once again, bringing out the delicacy, as well as the strength, of Chopin's invention. The greater the music here, the more revelatory the playing, especially in a magnificent account of the Polonaise-Fantasie. This 73-minute recital, carefully laid out to be listened to at a single sitting, concentrates on the late masterpieces. Buying it, and the Tchaikovsky, is a ticket to a pianistic paradise.
The Mail on Sunday (5 stars for both CDs)
Stephen Hough's programme for this Bath Festival recital was a tribute to the Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot. To honour fully such a musical legend requires a comparable mastery, and Hough has it. His slight frame and understated manner belies the physical might of his playing. Yet it is not so much the power that is transfixing as the rigour and penetrating intellect that Hough applies at every level: the listener's attention is immediately caught and nailed to the spot.
Hough opened with his own arrangement of Cortot's transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. The thundering weight of the bass line not only conjured the illusion of the organ's pedal notes, but resonated right up through the instrument to maximise the impact of the chromatic harmony. By contrast, the voicing of the fugue was achieved with impeccable clarity. Hough brought the same incisiveness to Franck's Prélude, Chorale and Fugue, its climactic contrapuntal web balancing that of the Bach, but ending in a typically Franckian carillon flourish.
Hough's ability to weight the tone and, simultaneously, use the sustaining pedal to capture and transform the decaying sound was revelatory, nowhere more so than in the three pieces by Fauré that bridged Bach and Franck. In these, Hough created an impression of dappled light and fluctuating shadows while shaping sweeping arcs of melody.
Poetic instinct was a Cortot characteristic and in the second half Hough brought piercing insight to Chopin, the ultimate poet of the piano. In an elegant pairing of the B major Nocturne, Op 62, with the B minor sonata, Op 58, the balance between the Bachian harmony underpinning the structure and Chopin's expressive sensibilities was perfectly calibrated.
The Guardian (5 stars)
[...] Stephen Hough’s mercurial, magical solo playing in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Hough made a lot of the piece sound as dapper and light-fingered as a Mendelssohn scherzo. Yet somehow, miraculously, he still managed to punch out those spine-chilling Dies Irae quotations like summons from beyond the grave. Superb stuff.
Tchaikovsky Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra on Hyperion Records
The old warhorse (Concerto no. 1) comes up fresh as paint. Even with 130 alternatives on the market this is an exceptional reading [...] The electrifying pace Hough injects into [its] coda and the Concert Fantasia are suitably exciting, though these are nothing compared to the tumultuous final pages of no. 2 (a tremendous performance). The audience whoops in amazement. [...] This is a great recording - no doubt about that - and one which, if there is any justice, will garner any number of awards.
Hough’s easy virtuosity is sometimes taken for granted in his native country, but he is no mechanical flash merchant, as these brilliantly played but thoughtfully reconsidered interpretations reveal. He achieves the remarkable feat of not making the B flat minor concerto sound remotely hackneyed.
Sunday Times (5 stars)
With Hough at the keys, the First Concerto becomes no warhorse taken for a dutiful trot but a freshly imagined masterpiece bouncing with surprises and invention. Beyond Hough’s crystalline clarity, dash and power, Vänskä displays complete mastery of the music’s architecture, engineering tension particularly well in the finale’s hurly burly. The Second Concerto, in G major, also flourishes as never before. Oddities of structure and the piano-orchestra balance pretty much vanish under the musicians’ spell.
Anyone who heard Stephen Hough's barnstorming performances of all the Tchaikovsky piano concertos at last year's Proms will want to own these CDs. Captured live, they recreate all the raw excitement of those memorable evenings at the Albert Hall.
Anyone who heard Hough's performances of the same works at last summer's Proms in London will know what to expect here. His ability to strip off the layers of varnish from a work so that it recaptures much of its startling freshness is remarkable, and his combination of bravura swagger and the most fastidious care with line and texture is utterly convincing.
The Guardian (5 stars)
Though playing the same notes in the same order as everyone else, Hough and Vänskä manage to remap [the First Concerto]. The pianist, startlingly lucid even at breakneck speeds, delivers virtuosity without ego; the conductor sustains tension where most performances go slack; and his arrangement of "None But the Lonely Heart" (borrowed by Stravinsky for "The Fairy's Kiss") is exceptionally poignant.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Guaranteed to set the pulses racing [...] delivering performances that project an exceptionally high level of adrenalin, Hough brings a much greater degree of coherence to the episodic nature of the first movement of the 2nd [Concerto ...], the orchestra responding very incisively to his dynamic and spontaneous playing.
BBC Music Magazine
[In the Second Concerto] as always with Hough, of course, there's breathtaking variety of colour and touch [...] While the finale has plenty of dash and even elegance, there's a consistent sense that we're on the edge - and we seem to vault beyond the bounds of reason entirely as the Concerto hurtles towards its conclusion. A crushing performance that ought to change the way you think about the piece.
International Record Review
The First Concerto is the inevitable starting point and Hough's take is awe-inspiring. In fact, you may need to steady yourself during the breakneck opening Allegro and the final pages which erupt in a veritable tornado of notes. Ecstatic applause from the Minnesota audience lends it all that very special sense of occasion.
New Zealand Herald
[This recital] was two hours of the most devastating clarity of pianism I have witnessed. When Hough is in this form he cannot be rivalled [...] His own arrangement of Bach's D minor Toccata and Fugue, conceived for the power and clarity of a modern concert grand piano, sacrificed nothing in its majesty. Hough’s French collection lifted the veil from Fauré and revealed César Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue as a more precise, powerful and dramatic piece than I have realised. And his rivetingly dramatic Chopin playing, especially in the B minor Sonata, was as lucid intellectually as it was devoid of misty sentiment. A colossal recital.
The Herald (Glasgow)
Soloist Stephen Hough played [Mendelssohn's picno concerto no. 1] with focus, technical dexterity and delicacy, bringing out the work’s sense of joy in a really brilliant performance. Recognizing that, the audience rewarded him with a warm ovation. Hough returned the favor with an encore. Rather than something big and fiery, he chose the quiet, understated “Venetian Gondola Song” from Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Stephen Hough's performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor [on Hyperion Records CDA67085] sets him apart from the rest. Utilizing all of his capabilities as a pianist, he expertly conveys the changing character of the music. At times, it sounds as if he's playing several different pianos as he moves from a brilliant tone to a broader sound and back again. This piece requires not only the technical ability to play difficult music over a long period of time, but also the intellectual grasp to pull the threads together. Hough possesses both.
Ted Libbey NPR
Though he's a brilliant pianist, Hough's style -- so light and fleet-fingered -- isn't what we usually hear -- or expect to hear -- in Tchaikovsky, especially in a burly, massive opus like the famous Piano Concerto No. 1 [...] and yet, as it turned out, this was an extremely effective performance. Vanska and Hough made an especially persuasive case for their scaled-down, patrician approach, a reading that emphasized clarity, nimbleness and lyricism without any loss of excitement. Through a subtle stretching of phrases, Hough unearthed a welcome vein of melancholy in the slower passages of the first movement, along with a surprising playfulness in the cadenzas. And without pounding, he took the big double-octave roulades with fearless energy and a daredevil speed that surely rivaled that of the two classic Horowitz-Toscanini recordings.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Stephen Hough took the most popular piano piece from Peter Tchaikovsky's canon — his First Concerto — and created something more anxious, agitated and ultimately enlightening than you'll customarily encounter. Hough displayed the same pristine technique and interpretive depth that local audiences have enjoyed during his recent visits. Throw in the spine-tingling nature of the First Concerto, and the result was a lengthy standing ovation that eventually inspired an encore [...] Tchaikovsky seldom has sounded so conflicted [...] an intriguing performance from beginning to end.
Pioneer Press (St. Paul)
Hough and the Minnesota Orchestra dispatched Tchaikovsky's Concert Fantasia with stunning virtuosity, vigorously elevating a piece that languishes in symphonic obscurity [...] This is a prodigious piece of music that shows off Hough's fierce strength, his disciplined articulation, delicate clarity, dexterity and passion.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
[The] Concert Fantasia proved a tremendously successful collaboration. Because so much of the work is given over to lengthy solo piano passages, Hough was able to dictate the mood. Or more accurately the moods, for he played up the work's emotional contrasts, thundering here, sighing there, delicately dancing, but always with the utmost precision and unimpeachable technique.
Pioneer Press (St. Paul MN)
Shorter and sunnier than the two main Tchaikovsky piano concertos, [the Concert Fantasia] nevertheless requires greater virtuosity than either, and Hough played with barnstorming brilliance.
Stephen Hough, called upon for the wayward Concert Fantasia (last heard at the Proms in 1903), offered crystal clarity, a springing gait and radiant virtuosity.
Undoubtedly, these terrific youngsters [of the NYO] will have learned a great deal about playing the romantic repertoire by simply listening to Stephen Hough. In Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 he was the epitome of a “golden age” virtuoso with his balletic elegance and dazzling rhythmic reflexes and it would have been impossible for some of that not to have rubbed off. There was an extraordinary moment mid-way through the first movement where the mounting intensity of the NYO strings seemed quite literally to transfer energy into Hough’s hands with fusillades of double-octaves powering us into the first cadenza [...]
But then came the pellucid dreaminess of the slow movement where Hough’s exquisite rubati were truly mirrored in the sound he made and his sensibility seemed to proliferate through each and every NYO player. It was a performance of properly dramatic extremes, of quicksilver brilliance and of thunderous excitement from Hough himself. But he pointedly chose an encore which reflected quietly on Tchaikovsky’s troubled soul - a transcription of the song “None But The Lonely Heart” - and that was infinitely telling.
The piano concerto brought Stephen Hough to the crest of his Tchaikovsky series, and once again demonstrated his ability to strip the Romantic Russian repertoire of its sentimental gloop without sacrificing its thunder. In the most fevered moments, Hough erupted, mixing unrestrained passion with purposefulness; yet it was in the quietest exchanges with the orchestra that he drew us in most irresistibly. The encore – his own, hushed solo arrangement of Tchaikovsky's None But the Lonely Heart – was a gem.
But then the pianist Stephen Hough came on to play Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, whose main raison d’être seems to be to challenge the pianist to play more notes and at greater velocity than is humanly possible. But, improbably, Hough pulled it off, playing not just fast but with refined delicacy and in the romping finale with delicious insouciance.
Then Hough and Nelsons launched into the Tchaikovsky [2nd], an unbalanced but enthralling score with its ambitious, extended first movement, poetic but uneven middle, and feverishly jaunty finale. The piano part, and especially the first big cadenza, is so fast, complex and ferociously difficult that you feared Hough - or the instrument he was in brilliant combat with - would combust. But he and the orchestra somehow managed to plunge down the helter-skelter together with perfect grace and companionship, never appearing to falter. Afterwards, Hough played a slinky solo miniature by Mompou, as if offering us all a pianissimo tranquilliser.
Hough himself is an indefatigable champion of this eccentric and excessive work [Tchaikovsky 2nd], and he makes you believe in every mad note of it. Cracking power and precision from both soloist and orchestra for the grand Russian manner of the opening — then handfuls of notes, spinning manically from the keyboard.
It is hard to imagine another pianist sounding more eloquent in [Tchaikovsky 2nd]. Hough seems able to tease out filigree detail and glittering colours even when a composer is throwing fistfuls of notes at him – a signal achievement.
Hough seized hold of the charger of a first-movement cadenza, galloping as though he were in competition with the Olympic javelin shuttle. Indeed, there was more than a whiff of the superhuman in the closing moments of the concerto.
London Evening Standard
Hough played it [Tchaikovsky 3rd] stunningly; he sounded as if he was using at least 15 fingers and a couple of toes in the heroic cadenza.
The torso of the unfinished 3rd Concerto brought [Hough's] characteristic deftness of rhythm and a wonderful sense of “golden age” pianism with the second subject of the piece relaxing into a beguiling range of rubatos in the span of only a handful of bars. Sound and phrasing were beautifully reconciled.
Hough's style of virtuosity is lean, brisk and free, mixing pointed dryness with languorous change of tempo, punctuated with moments of surprising vehemence, always underscored with bristling intellectual energy. The last movement replaced the riveting flexible-wristed virtuosity of the first movement with equally exhilarating quicksilver velocity, etching another unforgettable performance into Sydney's musical memory.
Sydney Morning Herald
Stephen Hough is renowned for his advocacy of the romantic piano repertoire. It is easy to see why. His account of Tchaikovsky's unfathomably neglected second piano concerto was a rewarding fusion of barnstorming brilliance and poetic sensitivity [...] Hough's trademark crystalline articulation and fluid dexterity were in full evidence.
Bracing speeds and pounding fortissimo chords invigorated the work with surging rushes of energy. Typically, Hough infused his high-voltage virtuosity with subtle, sophisticated elegance. His phrasing was often inflected with astutely employed dashes of rubato and tenuto, and he displayed exquisite delicacy in sotto voce passages.
British pianist Stephen Hough was firmly in command of Tchaikovsky's heroic if sometimes awkward piano writing. We've heard so many fire-breathing virtuosos barnstorm their way through this piece that it was wonderful to hear someone making real music out of it. Hough spurred the torrential chordal passages with rock-solid rhythm, while his rubato always flowed out of a deep understanding of the style.
Is there a more elegant and unflappable pianist than Stephen Hough? In any setting, in any repertoire, the British player can make the greatest concertos of the Romantic tradition full of life and power without even a whiff of vulgarity. And from the first bars of the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor first concerto (complete with evening ambulance-siren obbligato) to the last (complete with return of the ambulance theme), Hough gave the festival a standard that it will surely work diligently and happily to meet over the next 10 weeks.
Although Tchaikovsky's second concerto isn't as familiar as his first, Hough's 10-digit flurries up and down the keys were filled with the flamboyant showmanship the composer customarily inspires. This was an exceptional performance, particularly during an explosive first-movement cadenza that gave the Steinway a workout, Hough's hands a blur as he struck with speed and precision.
After acting as emotional catalyst for the opening, Hough was a wise and wistful facilitator between violinist Jorja Fleezanis and cellist Anthony Ross in the second movement, then an exuberant dancer in the finale. Audience members responded with their fastest standing ovation in recent memory.
Not every pianist offers a detailed prospectus of the works he means to play. But then not every pianist is Stephen Hough, who has won awards for his poetry as well as for his playing, and who regularlyblogs about music, religion, hats and other topics for The Telegraph, the London newspaper. “This recital is about counterpoint — not so much within the pieces (despite the two fugues), but between the pieces,” Mr. Hough wrote in the program for his Carnegie Hall performance, presented before a large, rapt audience on Thursday night. His essay, which identified a Parisian spirit and the great pianist Alfred Cortot as further leitmotifs, indicated a keen, idiosyncratic intellect, elegantly deployed.
His playing confirmed that impression. He opened with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) for organ in his own edition of Cortot’s piano arrangement. Dramatic flair, dazzling technique and pinpoint clarity in counterpoint thus established, Mr. Hough shifted gears with Fauré’s mellow, aqueous Nocturne No. 6 in D flat, Impromptu No. 5 in F sharp minor and Barcarolle No. 5 in F sharp. In these, and in the account of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue that followed, Mr. Hough’s execution was scrupulous, his lines affectionately molded. But what impressed most was his quietest playing, a hush so bold that its gravitational pull took you deep inside his work.
After intermission Mr. Hough offered a powerful account of Copland’s Piano Variations of 1934, a piece that reflects Copland’s youthful dedication to radical social politics and steely modernity. What Mr. Hough showed, through his incisive touch and sensitivity to dynamics, was that the sweeping prairies and stately arroyos of Copland’s maturity could already be glimpsed past the rivets and girders here, as long as you knew where to squint.
New York Times
Hough brought enough detail and focus for everybody in a fascinating, unusual, well-thought and ultimately shattering performance of the Tchaikovsky…Hough was leaving himself somewhere to go, and he went there, all the way. This was ‘contemporary’ Tchaikovsky: informed, that is, by the current revisionist trend-of-thought that there is a lot more substance to the composer than the mere sentiment and sugar so often ascribed to him. There is certainly nothing goopy about Hough's playing: slightly acidulous, if anything, and incisive. His fingerwork outlined strong shapes through a network of crosshatching, with the precision of a fine-tipped pen…The conclusion was a veritable tempest in which the roiling, demonic piano called forth such a storm surge of response from the orchestra as nearly to drown itself out before blasting to a finish. A thrilling performance.
The Washington Post
It’s a wonder the fire alarms didn’t go off at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Thursday night. The incendiary match-up of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor Vasily Petrenko and piano soloist Stephen Hough produced one of the most memorable concerts of the season…Speaking of fast and intense, Tchaikovsky’s overly flogged warhorse headed out of the gate with a refreshing vigor and absence of sentimentality. Hough, the widely admired British pianist, tore into the concerto in a way that may well have horrified some listeners. I think he even managed to outdo speed demon Martha Argerich when it came to octave whirlwinds. Well, I’ve always been of the (probably unsound) mind that nothing can be played too fast — or too slow. But what typically happens when pianists want to rip up this work is that they go for both extremes in one sitting, constantly pulling the tempo every which way to apply an interpretive stamp. Hough would never stoop to that sort of thing. What he did was simply take the concerto out of its mushy romantic nest and treat it like a great work that combines bravura with un-sticky lyricism. The proportions were always sensible, and that made all the difference…the electricity he produced as he charged ahead had an almost giddy effect — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one smiling in the hall…This kind of music-making — unpredictable, risky, fearless — is as rare as it is exciting. It’s what keeps us coming back to concert halls, even to such familiar repertoire as the Tchaikovsky concerto.
The Baltimore Sun
If Dudamel hoped to establish his bona fides as an interpreter of the Classical repertory, he couldn't have chosen a more stylish role model and collaborator than Stephen Hough. The British pianist played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 with impeccable grace, wit and style, complete with his own delicious cadenzas.
He and Dudamel had never met until this week's rehearsals, but the encounter seemed one of equals and counterparts. Hough is known for his unusual combination of intellectualism and romanticism, and his partnership with Dudamel in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467, underlined Dudamel's own remarkable intelligence and the conductor's natural ability to support Hough's experiments in rhythm and balance. I am not sure when I last heard a performance of a Mozart piano concerto that was so interesting. Even in the beloved Andante, Hough reminded us of Mozart's complexity by highlighting the left-hand accompaniment. In a wonderful exchange, Hough seemed to embody wholly natural Latin rhythms while Dudamel gave the orchestra an English clarity.
Chicago Sun Times
There must be something in the psychology of British audiences that requires their musical icons to be acquired from abroad. Otherwise Hough would already be acclaimed as a national treasure, for over the past decade or so he has consistently produced performances that place him in the top flight of international pianists. Perhaps the variety of his programming tells against him, too - as well as Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, he also revels in the flashy late-Romantic repertoire, and includes salon pieces in his recitals, all of it delivered with immaculate polish and unerring style.
Hough was as cool and controlled as the music was dramatic and difficult, his demeanor composed as his hands moved in a keyboard-mashing blur. True, part of the thrill was in watching a stunning athletic feat--and this was like an entire season of Michael Jordan in his prime condensed into half an hour--but his musicality and intellect were as much a part of the performance.
There are all too few pianists with the equivalent of Hough's three Michelin stars … Opening with two of Mozart's solo masterpieces, the ear is welcomed into an intimate, pellucid sound world with a sophisticated grading of dynamics … [Liszt-Busoni Fantasy] provides a hair-raising bravura display that deserves to be heard more often. At least, when played like this.
A bold and dramatic account of Mozart's K475 C minor Fantasia opens this memorable and imaginatively devised recital. While emphasising the prophetically romantic nature of the music, Stephen Hough takes great care not to overplay its more forceful passages … The final party piece, the Liszt/Busoni Fantasia on themes from The Marriage of Figaro, is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser given an exhilarating performance guaranteed to bring the house down.
BBC Music Magazine
Here’s another winning, imaginatively conceived disc from Britain’s finest pianist…It is unexpected and delightful programme-building. Prized for his pianism, Hough is also a superb Mozartian. He lends these Fantasias an almost Beethovenian weight and depth of expression, as if to say they signal the beginning of the Romantic tradition…Hough’s piece juxtaposes musings on two of Mozart’s earliest piano works, K1 and K33, and a late song, Longing for Spring, which quotes the finale to the Piano Concerto, K595. Hough’s playing is dazzling throughout.
The Sunday Times
Serious for this extraordinary pianist appears to mean sober, dignified and energetic. Mr. Hough’s Beethoven and Mendelssohn push forward. No lilies are gilded. Faith is placed in what the music says; lingering editorial comment is secondary. Mr. Hough can be delicate and he can thunder, and he is responsive to how harmonic gravitational pull affects phrases.
New York Times
In a typically well-made progamme, the compelling British pianist springboards off Mozart into a series of tributes. The virtuosic challenges are handled with liquid clarity and intelligent expression. Mesmerising in the Mozart, the transition to a more modern take comes surprisingly fluently.
It makes the perfect finale to a disc that shows what a wonderfully versatile and agile-minded pianist he is, unquestionably the finest we've got in this country.
A scintillating exploration of Mozartian style in tribute works by other composers. Easily the most attractive is by Stephen Hough himself, who takes three small pieces and reinvents them in the style of Poulenc. The result is a seductive, spicy and totally original addition to the genre, and a nice counterweight to the Liszt-Busoni Figaro fantasia, which the prodigiously talented Hough plays with his trademark intensity.
He is a pure, honest musician, and one of the best pianists in the world. He is the kind of pianist — very rare — who contains all pianists. He is a thunderous and dazzling virtuoso; and he is a poet, a miniaturist. He is both a Liszt player and a Mozart player — utterly appropriate in both. He has Horowitz in him, and also Myra Hess. (Actually, those two pianists contained all elements too.) Mr. Hough, in brief, is a complete pianist. He does not have much company…In the Brahms's D-minor, Mr. Hough called on his completeness: He was titanic and angelic, as the music required. In almost every note and phrase he played, there was judgment. The second movement had all the spirituality imbedded in it. And Mr. Jurowski and the Russian National Orchestra made excellent, committed partners in Brahms. They used head and heart in the right doses…This was a first-class performance of a great concerto. The audience got its money's worth, and then some.
The New York Sun
The first half, made up of three works heavily dependent on variation form, emphasised the intensely thoughtful side of [Hough’s] artistry, while the second, a concise survey of the waltz in piano literature, showed off his effervescent bravura brilliance, which can lavish as much care on the slenderest miniature as on the most highly wrought sonata form. Both were totally convincing…The lucidity of his playing - crystalline textures, crisp articulation - finds a perfect counterpart in a musical understanding that fits every detail into the overall scheme and never even momentarily loses sight of where the music is heading. The unforced naturalness with which the second movement of Op 111 unfurled, the metrical modulations between the variations seamlessly managed, showed off that understanding to perfection…Hough's waltz sequence began at the beginning…The playing was extrovert and ardently lyrical by turns. The steely edge that parts of the Weber showpiece demand returned for a dazzling account of the Mephisto Waltz, while the melancholy pervading Chopin Op 64 No 2 was as perfectly caught as the sentimentality of Saint-Saëns's Valse Nonchalante and Chabrier's Feuillet d'Album. Hough passed the tests he set himself consummately.
For his D minor Concerto Brahms is said to have drawn on his friend Robert Schumann's decline into madness when he was suffering from hallucinations. And one can scarcely imagine a better performance than that provided by the pianist Stephen Hough in the Funkhaus (Broadcasting House) to illustrate this. This Englishman with his hugely impressive crystalline sound was constantly seeking to extend the boundaries of musical expression. He played the powerful first theme with its sequences of trills and accentuated emphases with such intensity that one was left with their piercing, wrenching tone ringing in one's ears. Such was Hough's uncompromisingly breakneck speed that the mighty octave sequences at the beginning of the development and later in the final stretta became a veritable riot of sound.
Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung
In a word, Hough's artistic talent is a gift that can't be created - it just is. And an evening in his presence at the piano is nothing short of magic.
The Denver Post
If a music critic's only real job is to bring people to beauty, then let me share Stephen Hough's performance of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto…Hough offered a never-to-be-forgotten event that was both humbling and exhilarating, one of the finest hours of music all season. A MacArthur "genius" and a favorite of piano fans around the world, Hough plays with a quality of stillness that illuminates the music from within. His attack is so pure, the piano itself seems to speak…His sound is lean and purposeful, exquisite in its softness, but electrifying in loud passages and rounded in climaxes. You'd think that a large hall would require larger musical gestures, but Hough did the opposite, closing the distance between performer and listener. We came to him, not the other way around, and that is part of his magic.
Stephen Hough straddles the border between pianism and prestidigitation, playing with a finesse that shouldn't be achievable at the speeds he favors. But Hough is more than his fingers. A composer and a writer with a theological bent, he's the sort of reflective musician we can never have too many of.
The pianist and composer Stephen Hough is known both for his intellectual grasp of his repertory, which shows itself in the clean precision of his playing, and for the warmth and emotion of his interpretations of the great Romantic pieces. He’s also celebrated for his championing of new music and his rediscovery of neglected composers.
The Wall Street Journal Europe
Hough’s recording of the four Rachmaninov Piano Concertos drew awards of the highest order…In Hough’s measured, unshowy opening, accompanied by the silkiest of instrumental ensembles, the long opening melody soared. The teasing inner voices of the slow movement unfolded with an almost improvisatory quality, and the dazzling third movement was exhilarating without being overblown.
Talk about multi-talented: when Stephen Hough revisits his native city as artist-in-residence at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra next week, the range of what he will do is staggering…Hough, it turns out, was twice on the verge of becoming a Catholic priest, but, luckily for us, bishops and priests argued him out of it: lots of folk can sing plainchant, but only one in a million plays Rachmaninov like him.
Stephen Hough is, by general consent, the finest concert pianist Britain has produced for decades. He is the only soloist to have won Gramophone’s Record of the Year twice and the only classical musician ever awarded a $500,000 ‘genius fellowship’ by the MacArthur Foundation. Time magazine describes him as ‘a totally unsnobby egghead’ with ‘enough technique for two ordinary pianists’ – perhaps because he practises twice as hard as most of his rivals, spending hours at a time working out the precise angle and the nanosecond at which to apply the pedal in a single bar of a Beethoven sonata.
The Sunday Telegraph
The sparkle and sensitivity of Stephen Hough’s piano playing is lavished on a typically imaginative cross-section of music inspired by Spain. There’s the half-light beauty of Mompou, a glittering Soler sonata, neglected Granados, superb Albéniz and vivid musings from the French neighbours, Ravel and Debussy. Showy trifles end the disc, but there’s nothing superficial about the performances. The perfect Christmas present.
I cannot imagine many piano lovers failing to fall for this delectable and all-too-brief collection of impressions, portraits and postcards. If you are not drawn to the imaginative programme of the familiar, the brand new and the entirely unknown, then the elegant, eloquent playing of this master pianist will surely seduce you.
Hough is one of Britain's best-kept cultural secrets; a pianist of such sophistication he will, I suspect, by the end of his career be able to be mentioned in the same breath as the few great British pianists of the past, such as Clifford Curzon and Solomon.
The Mail on Sunday
Stephen Hough as always been something of a free spirit among pianists, combining new thinking in the greats with a penchant for the outré and unfashionable.
Hough has always been a very fine Schumann pianist, but on the evidence of this performance of the C major Fantasy, he has matured into a great one. This was as fine an account of what is arguably the greatest of all Schumann’s solo-piano works as London has heard in a very long time: meticulous in its attention to detail, with so much that is often glossed over carefully delineated, yet boldly architectural in its grasp of the large-scale structure, too. If that was piano-playing on the highest level, then the Mozart in the programme was almost as special.
This International Piano Series recital was a characteristic Stephen Hough progression from the most weighty repertoire to the airiest indulgences of salon virtuosity. There was nothing indulgent about Hough himself; rather, an unshowy intentness at the keyboard and a positive disinclination to milk applause.
Stephen Hough, though by a distance the finest British pianist of his generation, and one of the world’s most refined keyboard artists, has almost wilfully eluded fame. He seems embarrassed that anyone would want to lionise him, as was always apparent during his packed Queen Elizabeth Hall recital…Of his 40 CDs, seven have received major awards, a sure sign that among the cognoscenti Hough is one of the outstanding musicians of our time.
The Mail on Sunday
[In Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini] ... the spirit of Paganini hovered most above a superb pianist: Stephen Hough offered all the showmanship this piece demands, but played with a fierce intelligence. Darting in and out of the lush Bamberg strings, Hough gave us all the mercurial wit to set off a really satisfying collaboration.
They are offered as a set [Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos] and it is as a set that they provide the greatest rewards – never indulgent but never shy of the Big Moment; magnificently played, with an attention to detail that never precludes spontaneity, and accompanied with a sympathy and imagination that lift them well above the ordinary.
The obvious yardstick is the composer’s own playing. Hough shares with Rachmaninov a precision, a rhythmic energy, a quite beautiful singing tone and – perhaps most important in these dense textures – an unerring clarity. . . . In frenzied, melodramatic, fiery or calm moment, this performance is marked by Hough’s wonderful range of colour. Always there’s a sense of clarity and cogency, but nowhere does Hough give short measure in terms of emotional involvement.”
International Record Review
“Hough is one of the finest pianists to come to these shores in a decade (...) This was playing which mesmerised the ear with rich imaginative worlds and hitherto unknown vistas of colour.”
Sydney Morning Herald
“In Hough’s hands this Sonata is an incredible struggle between intellectual rigour and destructively powerful emotion. And Hough expresses all this not through wildness but through playing of the purest, most controlled musicality, an approach that is in itself quintessentially Brahmsian. One could write a complete analytical essay on Hough’s breathtakingly illuminating playing of the Second Ballade, but no words could convey the beauty he brings to the Fourth. As its veiled wounded love song sinks in total resignation, one is conscious of having been face-to-face with genius.
He is in short, a totally unsnobby egghead who just happens to have a luminous, envelopingly warm tone and enough technique for any two ordinary pianists.
This is, quite simply, some of the most beautiful Schubert I have heard in years, or ever.