We'd probably have to go back to the days of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943, to find a major pianist who usually included one or more of his own compositions on his recital programs. The British pianist Stephen Hough seems bent on reviving that practice. He opened the second half of his recital Tuesday night at the Ordway Center -- part of the Schubert Club's International Artist Series -- with his own Piano Sonata No. 2, subtitled "Notturno luminoso."
The subtitle suggests something dreamy and romantic, possibly even sentimental. This would be misleading. What Hough describes, he says in a program note, is "the brightness of a brash city in the hours of darkness" along with the "loneliness of pre-morning" and "disturbing dreams." The result, a work of about 15 minutes in length, is substantial.
Jagged, aggressive chords at the beginning soon break up into motoric rhythms and wispy sprays of notes that take on the character of rivulets of water running between rocks. A contrasting quasi-lyrical section with hints of Rachmaninoff reaches an almost melodramatic pitch, after which the concluding section takes on a superhuman flurry of notes. This quirky "Notturno" is impressive, although, given its difficulty, the number of pianists willing to learn and perform it will surely be limited.
Hough opened with the two Nocturnes that make up Chopin's Opus 27, exquisitely played. A much bigger, thicker canvas followed: Brahms' Sonata No. 3 in F minor. This defiant music is the work of a 20-year-old genius. Hough has the technique for it, with huge, surging climaxes, rock-solid rhythms and an almost diabolical swagger in the central Scherzo. While there was much to admire, it was all a little too intense and unrelenting, and the sonority was a trifle top-heavy. It needed more bass.
Hough seemed to find his stride with Schumann's familiar "Carnaval." This was a reading full of lovely, well-considered thoughts, from the opening massive chords of the "Preambule" to the final orgy of A-flats that end the "Marche des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins." Hough observed all the repeats and, happily, refused to sentimentalize the "Chopin" and "Aveu" sections, drawing instead on their melancholy.
Hough returned for three encores, the last of which, Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat, referenced the two opening Chopin Nocturnes.
Michael Anthony is former music critic at the Star Tribune.