Rhinegold Photo credit: Matt Jolly
Stephen Hough performs at Aldeburgh Festival

Claire Jackson

Review: Stephen Hough at Aldeburgh

4:55, 4th July 2019

Stephen Hough at Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings | 12 June 2019

The fleeting nature of life and an appreciation of contemporary creative talent is a recurring – if underlying – theme of Aldeburgh Festival, the annual Suffolk event set up by local composer Benjamin Britten in 1948. Britten’s work is naturally a regular fixture in the programme, but this year another musician has joined the ranks of Aldeburgh’s historical figures: conductor-composer and Snape resident Oliver Knussen, who passed away last summer.

Reflections on death was the key theme of Stephen Hough’s solo Aldeburgh recital, which explored various responses to human demise, from melancholy to the macabre. Knussen’s Prayer Bell Sketch (1997) – itself composed in memory of composer Tōru Takemitsu – provided a moment of stillness after Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne BWV 1004, and was one of several memorial performances throughout the festival.

Although its famous melody is preserved in popular culture, Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata is rarely heard in the concert hall these days. Hough’s Doppio movimento danced and sang, while the actual funeral march contained detailed shading of every contour. A piano recital themed around death would not be the same without a hearty helping of Liszt, a composer who was fascinated by dark forces. Hough opted for ‘Funérailles’ from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, alongside the first Mephisto Waltz.

But it was the soloist’s own work, Sonata No 4 (‘Vida Breve’), that stood out for its sheer beauty and pianism. Hough surprised the audience by playing from the score – with the exception of the Knussen, it was the only piece not played by memory – explaining that, as a pianist, he wanted to observe all the nuances of the composer’s markings. It was a reminder of the many challenges faced by composer-pianists, and one Hough handled, as ever, with delightful charisma.

Stephen Hough

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