By Lawrence Budmen

The Vienesse composer Alban Berg (1885-1935) was the most important disciple of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). As a creative artist he was torn between Schoenberg's theories of atonality and the extravagant Romanticism of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). (Ironically Schoenberg would abandon atonality in the last years of his life; even stating that his 12 tone musical thesis was an artistic mistake.) Berg's early scores demonstrate these dual influences. In his "Piano Sonata," Opus 1 Berg created a brief, powerful score that journeys between tonality and atonal influences. This brooding, impassioned opus requires a pianist of the most refined artistic sensitivity and dazzling technical endowments. The distinguished British pianist made a welcome return to South Florida with an outstanding recital on February 1 at the UM Maurice Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables - a joint presentation of the Miami Civic Music Association and the Friends of Chamber Music. 

Berg's remarkable Sonata proved a fascinating opening work. The moody, angst ridden passions of this score were brilliantly illuminated by Hough. He produced a kaleidoscopic palette of keyboard coloration. Every bar was stamped with a deeply personal, burning inner fire. Hough's glowing tone and soaring pianistic fervor were a vivid reminder of the score's 19th century romantic underpinnings. The daunting hand crossings and technical challenges of this score were brilliantly dispatched by Hough. When played with such consummate artistry, Berg's Sonata becomes a deeply moving musical journey. 

By following Berg's incredible first published score with the "Piano Sonata in G Major," D.894 Hough drew the artistic parallels into broad focus. Hough's finely measured playing of the opening bars was mesmeric. In this performance, Hough drew the relationships not only between themes within movements but between the four movements as an artistic entity. The elegantly sculptured tones in the slow movement were coupled with phrasing of boldly lyrical sweep. This was a thinking man's performance of Schubert's music. Hough brought lively vivacity to the Scherzo. The feathery lightness and limpid tone in Hough's rendition of the Finale was special indeed. Rarely has this masterpiece been played with such finely chiseled pianism and heartfelt ardor. A memorable performance that remained in the mind's ear long after the music concluded!

For the second half of his recital, Hough illuminated a series of pianistic vignettes - music that rarely is treated to such stellar artistry. The wonderfully lilting yet elegiac "Valses Poeticos" by Enrique Granados were played with Imperial elegance and incandescent tonal beauty. In two works by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - "Interrupted Serenade" and "La Soiree dans Grenade" from "Estampes" - Hough unleashed a rainbow of pianistic hues. He also found the wit and striking modernity in these remarkable pieces. Hough's vivid, languorous playing made two of the "Iberia" pieces by Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909) - "Evocacion" and "Triana" - glow with Mediterranean warmth. What remarkable music this is when played with such loving artistry! Hough avoided the temptation to overplay Ravel's "Alborado Del Gracioso." In this understated performance, all of Ravel's gorgeously hazy musical pastels came alive. After such marvelous displays of pianistic sensitivity, Hough threw caution to the musical winds and offered a super virtuosic performance of the "Caprice Espagnol," Opus 37 by Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925). Moszkowski is an unjustly neglected composer. His salon vignettes are filled with melodic inspiration and beautiful instrumental effects. Hough played Moszkowski's lovely evocation of Spain with pianistic delicacy, insouciance, and sheer dazzling speed and energy.

As encores Hough offered a coloristic vignette by Federico Mompou (1893-1987), a composer whose music he has recorded and championed. Few pianists can play this sultry Latin music with such elegance and color. Hough concluded with one of his own jazz compositions - a pianistic holiday and great fun!

If Stephen Hough had only offered his illuminating traversal of the Berg Sonata, his concert would have been a major event. His fascinating program and magnificent artistry produced one of the finest recitals of the season! A great concert by a unique and stellar artist!

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