It may seem odd to review a piano recital in terms of social time and place, but that, it seems to me, was what last night's Peristyle Theater performance by Stephen Hough was all about.
The enigmatic Hough seems not so much to perform his music as to confront it, analyze it, and then engage it in piercing and contextualizing conversation. It is a remarkable event to witness.
This effect was helped by the repertoire's focus, which revolved around Mozart but more deeply around notions of transformation.
The program opened with Mozart's Fantasia in C Minor, a work of remarkable austerity punctuated sometimes by highly dramatic, even violent melodrama and at other times by melodies of extreme simplicity and warmth.
All of this is harnessed within a tightly bound package that seems punctuated by a deep-set loneliness.
Perhaps I read too much, but Hough is a deliciously quiet spirit when seated at the piano. In front of him, the instrument, so huge and complex in its mechanics, seems oddly sentient, yet tragically removed from human compassion.
Together, man and machine seemed to look out from their solitude to survey the early industrial landscape of Mozart's century. Listening and looking on was oddly disturbing.
Written during Robert Schumann's difficult courtship of his beloved Clara, the Fantasie in C is filled with the dreams, fears, and exuberances of a romantic soul in love at the height of the Age of Romanticism. The music ranges in emotional character from cozy flirtations to waves crashing into rocky cliffs.
All this Hough seemed to survey as if from a slight distance, as if by so doing he might better tell the story without being swept up into it himself. It was a successful strategy, one worth emulating.
After intermission Hough stuck to Mozart, but as seen through a variety of lenses.
The Sonata in B-Flat Major, K. 333 carried a wholesome centeredness that offered some resolution to the recital's turbulent first half.
Hough's "Three Mozart Transformations (After Poulenc)" took the 18th century and happily plunked it down into the middle of the 20th.
Harmonies shimmered and oozed with quirky modern sensibilities that nonetheless managed to retain the old-friend comfort of a Walt Whitman poem.
Hough played a single encore, the ethereal "Secreto" by 20th-century Spanish composer Federico Mompou.
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