Review | Stephen Hough Plays Beethoven

By Sofia Brizio  


Until recently I had not heard of Stephen Hough, but I love Beethoven and I’m glad to say it was a nice discovery, even though I was expecting more. However, when Stephen Hough played with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, that was the perfect recipe for a great evening.

British-born Stephen Hough is considered to be one of the finest musicians of his generation. The Economist included his name in a list of Twenty Living Polymaths, and he was also the first classical performer to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2001. In 2014 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He took part in performances televised worldwide and his recordings amount to over 50 albums. He is also a contributing writer for titles such as The Guardian, The Times, Gramophone, and BBC Music Magazine.

The event, recorded live for BBC Radio 3, opened with Beethoven’s breath-taking Piano Concerto No.4 and Stephen Hough really stole the show. The technical precision was unbelievable and it rightfully left the audience in awe just as much as his virtuosic and intentionally over-the-top style.

However, the performance overall didn’t quite resonate with me emotionally, and when Stephen Hough left the stage, I realised I would have liked more than just a flawless, by-the-book (or, I should say, by-the-score) execution of what is arguably one of Beethoven’s best pieces.

I got the same impression during the second part of the evening, when Beethoven was replaced by Mahler’s Ruckert-Lieder and Symphony No. 10 – Adagio.  The orchestra (conducted by Thomas Søndergård) delivered a perfect performance of both pieces. They were a joy to watch and to hear, displaying a technical precision the likes of which I had rarely seen before. But, again, it was so perfect it left me emotionally unaffected. Both the Ruckert and the Symphony deal with themes such as beauty and death; Mahler wrote them as a way to come to terms with his own impending death after a troubled marriage, and they are therefore highly emotional pieces, even though Symphony No. 10 (his last work) remained unfinished. Although the bravura of mezzo Catriona Morison is undeniable, I felt her voice was too often overwhelmed by the orchestra and difficult to hear, which surely did not help to convey the depth of those emotions.

All in all, the concert was enjoyable and the repertoire interesting, topped with a perfect execution very much appreciated by everyone in the audience.