In today’s New York Times Anthony Tommasini reviewed pianist Stephen Hough’s recital at Carnegie Hall. A major component of Hough’s recital was a piece of his own invention, his Piano Sonata No. 2 “Notturno Luminoso”.
My problem with this review is that there seems to be no critic alive (with the possible exceptions of Steven Smith and Alex Ross) who is not afraid of praising a work or a performance without also giving some sort of sly, backhanded dressing down of same. Here is what I mean:
At 51, Mr. Hough has established himself as an extraordinary pianist, a thinking person’s virtuoso. Whether he is a towering composer is another question. Music history usually takes some time to make those calls. And, from this one hearing, I cannot claim that Mr. Hough’s Second Sonata is destined for a slot in the repertory.
But it is an exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived for the piano. Mr. Hough, a polymath who also conducts, paints and writes poetry, is a lively writer on music who contributes a blog to The Daily Telegraph in London that is essential reading. Not surprisingly, he wrote a vividly detailed program note for his sonata.
The title “Notturno Luminoso” is meant to suggest the experience of a fantasy on a sleepless night in a brash city setting. As the piece, loosely organized in three parts, opens, we hear steely chords thick with clusters, like Messiaen’s harmonies but with a touch of bracing Copland or early Carter.
Now, what was wrong with saying it was an ‘exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived’ without saying that it also might not be ‘destined for a slot in the repertory’? Is it too much to simply enjoy a piece without also downgrading its chances at entering the repertory? How many of Liszt’s piano works were criticized at their premieres because the critics were concerned with whether any other pianists might not be up to their virtuoso challenges? I would guess that contemporary critics of Liszt were more concerned with the performance of the great pianist/composer, and with the novel techniques he may have introduced in his compositions, rather than if pianists would be playing his works fifty years hence.
Does this seem strange to anyone else but me?