The British pianist Stephen Hough above just spent a fortnight performing a piano recital of music by Chopin and Debussy. According to Hough's blog entry about the concerts, it was "London on Tuesday, then Manchester and Glyndebourne; and the following week Boston, New York and San Francisco." The final concert was hosted by San Francisco Performances and held in the relative intimacy of the SFJAZZ Center, which made most of those attending feel very lucky.
The program was unusual, with the four Ballades of Chopin in the middle surrounded by Debussy pieces, with La plus que lente and Estampes in the front and Children's Corner and L'isle joyeuse in the back. It turned out to be an inspired stroke of programming, though, and the concert grew more absorbing and virtuosically difficult as it went along, with a sweet respite at the Children's Corner before the voluptuous island finale which Debussy confessed, "Lord, but it's difficult to play."
Hough writes about the two composers on the program:
"They were both romantics on the surface but underneath Chopin was a classicist in his tastes...whereas Debussy was, arguably, the first modernist (hat tip: Pierre Boulez) with his revolutionary approach to form and harmony and his exploration of a musical language fragmenting into a new vocabulary and meaning...
The [Chopin] Ballades are stories – epic tales, in scope if not in length, operas in miniature. All of the Debussy pieces are poems, vastly suggestive beyond their duration in time or their presence in aural space."
Hough is one of the most technically amazing pianists I have ever witnessed, and there were moments in the quicker sections where his hands turned into virtual motion blur in front of your eyes, all while maintaining the most perfect musical clarity. Add to this a scary-smart intelligence along with beautiful musical instincts and you have an artist who is very special. The performance surpassed expectations, and the extraordinarily quiet and attentive audience gave him the attention he deserved.