Up until the last century, it was common practice for composers to be equally at home on the concert stage. Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Paganini, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Rachmaninoff were all considered among the top virtuosos of their day. But in our frantic and fragmented times, the two careers almost always require full time and attention, so the achievements of British polymath Stephen Hough are particularly notable, with an impressive catalogue of compositions in a wide range of genres, a MacArthur Fellowship, piano professorships at three prestigious music schools including Juilliard, and more than 600 published articles in international newspapers and magazines.
Hough’s recital Sunday at Rockville’s Bender JCC of Greater Washington was built around his third Piano Sonata. Unlike most 12-tone works, here Hough sought out consonant intervals; the effect was not unlike Copland or some of Ellington’s more progressive works. The tightly argued three-movement work featured a headlong central Allegro, where the spare texture highlighted the jumpy, continuously asymmetrical phrases.
Indeed, for a work by someone who performs so much Liszt and Rachmaninoff, the Sonata had a remarkable spareness; large stretches of the first two movements featured a single line, or at least lines that didn’t overlap. But I enjoyed this brainy, well-
constructed piece far more than I expected to, and the audience clearly did, too. The one oddity of the evening was that Hough performed everything from memory except his own composition, the work you’d think he knew the best.
Elsewhere, his Liszt group (the first two “Valses Oubliées” and the 10th and 11th “Études d’exécution transcendante”), the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue and the Schubert Sonata No. 14 all showcased his impeccable, cleanlimbed technique. I have felt more mystery from a performer in Schubert; everything here was well-gauged, almost pat. But the pianism in the Franck was ecstatic, and the fireworks of the 10th Liszt Étude sounded more playful than stressful. Wherever he manages to find the time along with everything else he does, Hough has clearly been practicing.