The Terrace Theater

It’s a wonderful feeling to put yourself wholly in the hands of a master. A few minutes into Stephen Hough’s excellent Washington Performing Arts recital at the Terrace Theater on Thursday night — partway through Debussy’s “Estampes” — I felt inner tensions relaxing within my body. There was no need to do anything, on this evening, other than sit back and appreciate whatever the pianist wanted to show us.

In his current recital program, which he’s playing all over the United States and Europe this spring — it comes to Carnegie Hall on May 9 — Hough chose to stick almost entirely (apart from one encore) to music by Chopin and Debussy, two pivotal composers for the piano. His beautifully palindromic evening opened and closed with individual pieces by Debussy — “La plus que lente, ” an urbane waltz and luxurious amuse-bouche; “L’isle joyeux, ” a histrionic close — flanking two Debussy collections, the three evocative vignettes of “Estampes” (Prints) and the six pieces of the “Children’s Corner” suite.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat. View Archive

At the evening’s heart were the four Chopin ballades, presented, in a canny piece of programming, on either side of intermission, two before and two after. Played in one chunk on a program, as they were never intended to be but often are today, these pieces can become a little monolithic; offering them with a break in between gave the listener a chance to regroup and appreciate the nuances that Hough brought out.

Hough is frequently described as a polymath, an intellectual, or even, in the wake of being awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2001, a genius. He’s an adroit writer and thinker, and he plays like one in that he always, regardless of what he’s playing, has something specific to say. This doesn’t mean that his playing is at all double-domed; on the contrary, his light touch is what makes him so beguiling. Chopin’s First Ballade is sometimes delivered with passionate intensity from the start; Hough played its opening phrases almost artlessly, with a buoyant sense of spontaneity and plenty of room to develop emotionally in a seamless and ever-intensifying narrative. Debussy, he said in a brief program note, wrote poems, while Chopin’s ballades are stories — an elegant turn of phrase that he proceeded to illustrate graphically, simply through the way he played.

“Estampes, ” then, were specific vignettes: “La soiree dans Grenade, ” smoky and sensuous; “Jardins sous la pluie, ” a rainbow haze beneath crisp crystalline raindrops of notes. After the Chopin, the “Children’s Corner” seemed to have picked up some of the clarity and drive of the ballades — if anything even more individuated in smaller dollops of sound, down to the little musical punch line, here distinctive in timbre, that punctuates “The Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” Least successful, to my ear, if most overtly impressive, was “L’isle joyeux, ” which threatened to yield to bombast at the very end.

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