Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Precise lightness at the piano


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Stephen Hough has made a name for himself as a polymath. Rightly renowned as a concert pianist, he's also a composer, a painter, a substantive blogger and, most recently, a novelist, with his first, "The Final Retreat," due out in April. Musically, he's also a polyglot, in terms of the broad range of musical styles he has essayed. For evidence, look no farther than his recital at Herbst Theatre on January 18, when he plays Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, the Schumann Fantasy, and Debussy's "Images."

It's 2018, the Debussy Year, a centennial celebration of the composer's death. Death anniversaries have a way of making regular concertgoers eventually want to give up the ghost, as some of us learned in the Mozart Year's overkill. Warner has just issued a Debussy Complete Works in a 33-CD box, and DG is rumored to be following suit.

Hough's new all-Debussy CD (Hyperion) – which contains Book I of the "Estampes," both books of "Images," the "Children's Corner," La plus que lente" and the titanic "L'isle joyeuse" – has almost the identical repertoire of a new DG release by the South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, who's not my cup of absinthe. Go with Hough, and catch the recital before you've overindulged in Debussy.

The sheer intelligence of Hough's playing has long been a calling-card. In a Hough performance, every note is considered but, as important, none is "worried." A telling call by Debussy that one of his pieces be played with "fantastical but precise lightness" defines the ground on which Hough meets this music. Hough's playing seldom gets the credit it deserves for broaching the fantastical. In fact it cloaks an ecstatic in a scholar-monk's robes.

To hear it at its most charming, there is Hough's ideally gauged "Children's Corner." It's as atypical and problematic a suite as you'll find in Debussy, a set of pieces that are by no means "for children" as performers, but that summon the specific affection the generous genius of Debussy had for his daughter Chouchou. It's fundamentally playful, delightfully varied music that dares to imagine a child's view of the world.

For the adult performer, it's anything but child's play, yet that's the way it has to sound to work. Volleys of repeated notes, time and again, evoke the sounds of a child (albeit a very gifted one) practicing the piano. But the syncopated rhythms alone ask a touch as sure as it is light, and the challenge for the player is to keep it all tripping (and, in "The snow is dancing," floating) along without also seeming infantile. Here the hyper-alertness of Hough's agile mind finds its natural ally in his playful touch.

Perhaps as a reaction to the abundant misconceptions about Debussy's music as easy on the ears, the trend in at least the last half-century is for pianists to find and exploit its extremes. What's refreshing about Hough's Debussy is that he takes each piece on its own terms, its only extremes those of concentration.

Yes, you can hear every note of theses dense scores, but that's hardly the main point. Yes, the rhythms are free and malleable, the colors almost tactile, but the fabric is never stretched out of shape for show. Savvy pedaling blurs some sonorities, but always meaningfully and never reflexively. This is powerful, pellucid playing that nonetheless never stints on the music's innate beauty and suggestiveness.

In the liner notes (sadly not by Hough), Roger Nichols makes several references to the playing of Ricardo Vines, Debussy's Spanish friend, who gave the premieres of many of these pieces as well as works of Ravel and Chabrier and other high-water marks of the 20th-century French repertoire. On YouTube you can hear Vines' 1930 recording of "Poisson d'or," whose premiere he played in 1907. That recorded performance captures the mercurial luminosity and lithe movement of the two Japanese carp Debussy saw in a Japanese black-lacquer plaque, and it revels in the mysteries of water that never ceased to fascinate the composer. But it comes a quarter-century after the premiere, and more than a decade after Debussy's death, and it's hard not to think that it took on some of the airs of saucy post-WWI salon music. It has a feeling I can only call "slinky," not all that far from hoochie-coochie.

By comparison, Hough's "Poisson d'or" is, wisely, more wondering than salacious. But for all that, my favorite track on the CD is "La plus que lente," a waltz at once earthy and evanescent, a cousin of Ravel's waltz before the ensuing madness. In Hough's hands it's languorous, beckoning and ultimately ensnaring – not so much refined as what I'd call advanced. As with the rest of this finely crafted disc, it's playing of both deep feeling and deep knowing.

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