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Three masterpieces that mesh

Stewart Oksenhorn

Those who get a chance to hear pianist Stephen Hough perform at Harris Hall tonight will get an earful of some of the finest piano music ever written.

The program for the concert, which begins at 8 p.m., includes three pieces – Mendelssohn’s “Variations srieuses,” op. 54; Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, S. 178; and Schubert’s posthumous Sonata in B Flat, op. D. 960. – that Hough said are like a greatest hits package.

“This is three great masterpieces, probably the three greatest pieces by these three composers,” said Hough, a frequent summer visitor to the Aspen Music Festival. “So that’s what ties them together.”

Putting a program together is not always as simple as selecting a handful of acknowledged masterworks. A musician must take into account what a particular audience has heard recently; what pieces do or do not go well together.

“I try to put together a program that has real meaning, like a chef putting together a great meal,” said the British-born Hough, who now splits his time between New York City and the British region of Cheshire, though he is planning a move to London for his European base. “You want things that go well together and make sense.”

One piece that is part of Hough’s recent repertoire but that won’t be performed tonight is “Ghost Variations for Piano.” The piece was composed by Aspen Contemporary Ensemble director George Tsontakis; Hough’s recording of the work recently earned a Grammy Award nomination in the Best Classical Contemporary Composition category. But Hough performed the piece last summer in Aspen, and will put it on the shelf for the moment.

Hough may not be playing his piece-of-the-moment tonight, but it is a balanced program he has assembled. One of the factors that makes the selections mesh is the varying times in the composers’ lives when the works were created.

“Liszt is full of the passion and anguish of humanity in a mid-life sense,” said Hough of the sonata, composed when the artist was in his early 40s. “The Schubert (completed two months before the composer’s death at the age of 31) sounds like someone toward the end of his life. The sadness and tragedy is much less theatrical, much more resigned.

“And the Mendelssohn is a great set of variations – wonderfully constructed and very passionate. It comes to a climax in almost a breathless way; it’s almost there before you know it.”


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