Straddling the weekend, I went twice to hear Stephen Hough, first with the Sydney Symphony on Saturday night (I also heard most of the broadcast of the same program on Friday night) and then, on Monday, in recital for Musica Viva.

The SSO program was Lutoslawski 4, Mozart 21 (piano concerto) and Dvořák 9 (symphony again). Mark Wigglesworth conducted.

It was good to have heard the Lutoslawski on air first. It had lots of interesting rippling textures and was always rhythmic/ Towards the end there was a bit of an outburst of vigorous percussion and forthright finale-ishness which I was less keen on, though perhaps a bit of conspicuous modern-style bombast was part of the point.

There was quite a lengthy feature on the broadcast (interview with Mr Hough) which matched a pretty lengthy stage re-set for the concerto. That concerto has rather oddly managed to be burdened with a nickname, “Elvira Madigan” which has nothing at all to do with Mozart or anything remotely related to him, and owes everything to the use of the slow movement in what I gather was a rather weepy film of the 1960s which involved somebody dying.

I’ve always thought the movement was more of a serenade – something akin to the cypress-tree-ish music in Figaro – breezy rather than tragic. I only really listened closely to this movement of the broadcast, but as I rather expected, SH took a rather breezy approach himself – he is not what I think of as a sentimental player. It was neat; it was cool; nobody died but you could still sigh with delight. The encore on Friday was Dvořák and on Saturday was a Chopin Nocturne in E flat.

How can one not enjoy the Dvořák New World? My only reservation was that at times I thought it a little short on lilt. Wigglesworth is a welcome visitor. More than one of my fellow concert-goers wondered if there is a prospect of seeing more of him when Ashkenazy’s incumbency comes to an end, which cannot be so far into the future. I like it that Wigglesworth has conducted opera as well as symphony concerts here – it must help when you conduct a Mozart concerto to be conducting a Mozart opera as he has been doing next door.

I felt ahead on the Monday concert even before I went because I had secured my ticket as part of an irresistible special deal. The program was also bold, with a coherent theme which made sense. SH introduced it as being about “strange sonatas” – first half, Beethoven “Moonlight” (ie, Sonata quasi fantasia Op 27 No 1), a sonata of his own, and then Scriabin 4; second half, Scriabin 5 and then Liszt B minor.

The Moonlight is not “strange” in the sense that it is unfamiliar, but as a sonata it is a bit strange because of the odd assortment and order of movements. SH took a rather cool approach to the first movement (accurately summarised by Peter McCallum in his review) before letting fly in the final movement.

SH’s own sonata was authentically him and his, despite his rather odd (to me) decision to read the music. He explained that he offered it in response to a request to play a piece by an Australian composer (SH has acquired Australian citizenship.) I wonder if there was any suggestion that he join all the other Musica Viva artists this year in doing something by Ian Munro?

Putting the two Scriabins either side of the interval was a canny move. The two sonatas have a lot in common though I think 4 is often thought of as the last of an earlier style and the 5th as the beginning of his mature style. The way they came out under SH’s hands was that the 5th seemed like a more successful working out of what was going on in the 4th.

Then there was the Liszt. It’s a monster.

SH is a pianist I really admire. He has something interesting to say and certainly from a technical point of view he can play the pieces he chooses the way he chooses to play them. I enjoyed his performance but not as much as I was expecting to. I’m still trying to put my finger on why. The best I can do so far is to say that in both the Scriabin and the Liszt I found him just a bit too cool and “objective” in his approach. In the big moments of both I yearned for something a bit warmer to go with all the power.

SH has blogged tantalisingly on the question of whether you can “tell” that a pianist is gay and though he doesn’t give a direct or simple answer to this question he edges towards yes, at least in relation to pianists of an earlier era, though not in any simple way (for instance, gay does not mean, he says, effeminate.) I myself am not sure if you can really tell and especially if you can tell from the sound of their playing alone. If you know a pianist is gay, you may then be able to see aspects of their personality in their playing which you think may well have something to do with their gayness. That will probably involve stereotypes galore which may or may not have anything to them at all. It’s only in the spirit of SH’s own observations on the topic that I found myself wishing (still struggling to put a finger on it) that his approach to those pieces was a little less “straight acting.” And boy oh boy is that a kind of stereotype squared.

On a side note, I saw that in Newcastle SH played this program on the Stuart piano. It was recorded for broadcast by the local fm station. That was brave of him and could be an intriguing broadcast to catch.

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