Debussy: La plus que lente
Chopin: Ballade No. 2 in F Major
Chopin: Ballade No. 1 in G Minor
Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A-Fat Major
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor
Debussy: Children's Corner
Debussy: L’isle joyeuse
When a few years ago I moved into my Upper West Side apartment and I heard some piano playing coming from downstairs, I figured that my exorbitant rent would at least be partly justified by some free-of-charge serenading. Alas! It did not take me long to realize that my downstairs neighbor's piano playing skills were hopelessly limited and would not improve with time. For the past year or so he's been doing unspeakable things to poor Chopin ‒ the "Revolutionary" étude being a favorite victim of his ‒ and I've been quietly gritting my teeth and loudly playing my Chopin CD by Jean-Yves Thibaudet to remember what those sparkling little gems actually sound like.
But there is nothing like live music, especially when performed by such a seasoned and well-rounded musician as Stephen Hough in the acoustically flawless environment that is Carnegie Hall's Stern auditorium, so that's where I was last Saturday night. And to make things even better, the four ballades of Chopin's would be book-marked by four works of Debussy's. So I cleared my head as much as possible from the immensely enjoyable production of The Rake's Progress I had seen at the Met in the afternoon and got mentally prepared for an old-fashioned Parisian evening in modern day New York City.
Transporting us right into the City of Lights of the early 20th century, Claude Debussy's contemplative "La plus que lente" (The more than slow) opened the concert with an all too fleeting moment of hushed melancholy, understated elegance and some beautiful harmonies.
Next, the program offered a wider range of ever-imaginative sounds with Debussy's three "Estampes" (Prints). The delicate "Pagodes" (Padogas) came out bustling with unusual oriental flavors, the spirited "La soirée dans Grenade" (The evening in Grenada) exploded with assertive rhythms, and the stormy "Jardins sous la pluie" (Gardens in the rain) was full of sound and fury as well as quotes from a couple of French folk tunes. Here again, the impressionistic nature of the composition winningly came through with a poetic atmosphere, bright colors and evocative harmonies.
Then we moved back in time to mid-19th century Paris with Frédéric Chopin and his four glorious ballades. I must confess that I am a total sucker for the Ballade No. 1 ‒ But then again, who isn't? ‒ and hearing it so gorgeously performed only deepened my bottomless love for it. For all four ballades, Stephen Hough did not shy away from the works' intensely expressive power, but rather used his impeccable technique and unwavering sense of the musical line to thoughtfully deliver a lyrically radiant, emotionally stirring, and simply all-around perfect Chopin experience.
Then it was back to Debussy with his "Children's Corner", the six-movement suite dedicated to his daughter Claude-Emma, who was three at the time. While it was predictably filled with sweet lullabies and playful images, it also featured the occasional bouts of frustration, dark passages, weird sounds and jazzy rhythms, all of which were brilliantly brought to life by Hough with plenty of warmth and vivacity.
A lot of fun could also be found in Debussy's "L'isle joyeuse" (The joyful island), which drew its inspiration from both Watteau's painting L’Embarquement de Cythère, in which a group of revelers takes a trip to the mythical island of Cythera in the Mediterranean, birthplace of Venus, and the island of Jersey in the English Channel, where Debussy escaped to with Emma Bardac, who became his second wife, and where he revised the composition. Accordingly, the work packed a lot in six minutes and happily burst with subtle exoticism, vivid colors and unbridled joie de vivre.
If the auditorium was not completely packed, the concert was nevertheless well-attended by an obviously dedicated audience, which eventually saw its rapturous ovations rewarded not by one, or two, or three, but by four (4) encores! And they were not the quick and easy favors he could have gotten away with either.
One can probably never hear too much Chopin ‒ at least with the right performer ‒ and Stephen Hough proved one more time his mastery of the Polish-born but Parisian-at-heart composer in a poignant-in-its-simplicity Nocturne in F-Sharp Major. Then it was on to a lively "Dulcinea Variation" from the ballet score for Don Quixote by Ludwig Minkus, arranged by Hough himself, followed the wild and wildly entertaining "Osmanthus Romp" composed by Hough himself, and finally the one we did not think we would get but did, a lush and sensitive rendition of Grieg's "Notturno". You really cannot get too much of a good thing.