In the summer of 1878 Johannes Brahms finally succeeded in growing a beard. It was his third attempt. ‘Prepare your wife for the grisly spectacle, for something so long suppressed cannot be beautiful,’ he wrote to a friend, and by all accounts he wasn’t wrong. Clara Schumann pleaded with him to shave it off. She’d have remembered Brahms as the golden-haired 20-year-old who had arrived on her doorstep in September 1853, glowing with genius; in the words of her husband Robert, ‘a young blood at whose cradle graces and heroes stood guard’. For modern listeners, though, the beard has long since conquered — as if, like one of Philip Pullman’s daemons, it somehow embodies Brahms in his gruff and hairy definitive form.
Stephen Hough opened the new year at the Wigmore Hall with a residency built around Brahms’s chamber music, and a less beardy pianist you’ll struggle to find. It’s not that he can’t or doesn’t play Brahms. Hough’s technique is invincible, and his performances of Brahms’s two piano concertos are simultaneously among the freshest and most thoughtful on record. But when one thinks of Hough, it tends to be as a bringer of delight: the virtuoso as epicure, finding moments of clear-eyed loveliness in music that other pianists might dismiss as lollipops or oddities — or, more likely, simply can’t play.
He writes about it too. Hough doesn’t just play the music of the ‘English Rachmaninov’ York Bowen. He somehow puts the sensation into words, describing (in his recent book Rough Ideas), ‘piano writing so elegant and refined that it seemed to slip around the hand like an old lambskin glove, the curling counterpoint almost nestling between the fingers rather than lying under the hand’. To the committed Catholic Hough, you sense, there’s a divine spark in all music, whether a prelude by Mompou or the Carousel Waltz. But where does such generosity and joy belong in the world of the agnostic Brahms, a composer in pewter and oak, and the gnarliest of self-critics? ‘Such a great man, such a great soul!’ declared his friend and disciple Antonin Dvorak. ‘And he believes in nothing.’
In Brahms’s Piano Quintet, Hough joined the Castalian String Quartet, a young ensemble of whom I’ve heard a lot but hadn’t actually encountered until now. They’re terrific: violinists who seem capable of anything, layering a gleaming finish (often the key to a really luminous quartet sound) on a viola player with a tone like crushed velvet and a cellist who sounds like old gold. As for Hough, well, he’s never been the kind of pianist who trashes a piano quintet by treating it as a mini-concerto. Assertive without ever being overbearing, he provided rhythmic clarity and a forward-leaning energy that gave the whole performance a gripping momentum. Brahms’s strenuously worked counterpoint took on the flexibility and strength of highly polished steel.
Until, that is, it melted. So much of Brahms’s large-scale music — even the youthful stuff (and Brahms’s youth left him with no shortage of pain to transmute into art) — sounds like an artist battling to contain his emotion within unbreakable forms. The struggle becomes the music, bracing if you’re in the mood, exhausting if you’re not. And yet almost always there will be some brief glimpse of consolation, when the music suddenly flushes with warmth and tenderness like sunlight breaking through the clouds after a storm-battered day.
At such moments of grace, there’s no pianist you’d rather have than Stephen Hough. That’s certainly how it felt towards the end of the first movement of the Quintet, and on the previous night, with clarinettist Michael Collins, at the beginning of Brahms’s Second Clarinet Sonata. Brahms had officially retired when he wrote his clarinet music. He’s stepped back from the struggle and Collins barely glanced at the sheet music as his figuration rippled over Hough’s alert, sensitive piano. Although certainly beautiful, the performance did feel rather on the extrovert side. Perhaps even the Wigmore Hall is too public a space for such intimate music, though I was reminded of Hough’s observation in Rough Ideas that instruments evolve, generally in a more forceful direction, and that Chopin would have been unable to play more than a few bars on a modern Steinway.
But the forgotten Austro-Hungarian composer Carl Frühling would surely have been thrilled to have heard his ultra-romantic Piano Quintet of 1892 performed at all, whatever the instruments. Frühling is another one of Hough’s beloved musical misfits, played here as if his place next to Brahms were entirely deserved, with swooning string melodies, diamanté keyboard cascades, and just the lightest leavening of eastern spice (Frühling came from Lemberg, in Galicia). The audience received it even more enthusiastically than the Brahms, though rare pictures reveal that Frühling also had a beard. But only a small one, impeccably waxed.