How to make the Chopin Ballades sound fresh? For the veteran British pianist Stephen Hough, who essayed the complete set in the second half of his Friday recital in Rockport, the answer lies in tapping into the wildness that runs through these scores like a groundswell.
Each ballade ends with a bravura coda, and in these passages there was an unbridled ferocity to Hough’s playing that released something elemental in the music. Hough, known more for his Apollonian poise, threw caution to the winds. The results were often thrilling.
But at moments of greatest stress the playing was also surprisingly approximate. The pianist rushed, jammed down the sustaining pedal, and seemed to lose control. There were fudged notes and missed jumps, and sometimes I feared the train would come off the rails altogether.
Everyone has off nights, but it was difficult to understand how a virtuoso admired for his comprehensive technique could stumble so.
Perhaps most successful were the third and fourth ballades, which offered Hough fewer opportunities for eruption. The elegiac main theme of the fourth spoke with great naturalness and simplicity, while the lilting second subject of the third was voiced to perfection.
But the overall impression was that Hough was not quite at home in Chopin’s large canvases.
In the first half, in less familiar repertoire, there was more to admire.
Brahms’s opus 116 Fantasien received a reading by turns muscular and tender. Light pedaling in the three extroverted Capriccios resulted in sparer textures than one expects in Brahms, but the payoff was an unusual clarity of phrasing. In the several Intermezzos, particularly Op. 116, No. 2 in A minor, Hough’s imaginative half-tones dramatized the darkly whispered confidences of Brahms’s late style.
By contrast, the pianist’s gentle lyricism revealed the aphoristic shards of the Schoenberg Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, as a modernist evolution of Brahms’s grand rhetoric. It was a daring opening to the recital.
Most compelling of all was an obscure trio of miniatures by composers rarely associated with the piano. The harp-like effects of Richard Strauss’s Träumerei emerged with limpid grace, the flowing central motive of Wagner’s Albumblatt in C major sang with robust warmth, and the vertical grandeur of Bruckner’s Erinnerung built to a huge climax.