Stephen Hough’s latest solo album takes us on a colourful tour of Spain and all things Spanish: a kaleidoscope of slants and angles on the soul and character of a once exotic and remote country.
Antonio Soler (whose innumerable sonatas were considered sufficiently outlandish to earn him the sobriquet ‘the devil dressed as a monk’) sets the scene for a sequence of impressionist wonders by Granados, Albéniz and Mompou (a disc of whose pianistic micro-masterpieces—CDA66963—won for Stephen Hough the 1998 Gramophone Instrumental Award), and Federico Longas’s insinuatingly virtuosic charmer Aragón.
Hough then allows outsiders a view into the magical kingdom. Debussy and Ravel peer longingly over the Pyrenees, while Godowsky, Scharwenka, Niemann and finally Hough himself are all in turn unable to resist this richest of cultural experiences.
Stephen Hough’s esoteric recital CDs rapidly acquire something of a cult status. Classic CD wrote of Stephen Hough’s New Piano Album CDA67043: ‘This is a terrific disc. A master pianist reminds us that the piano can delight, surprise and enchant’; while Classic FM Magazine welcomed Stephen Hough’s English Album CDA67267 saying: ‘Hough’s pianism is a constant source of wonder—every chord and phrase perfectly judged’.
Other recommended albums
Here, whether you consider music that has its roots in Spain herself, France or other countries, is a kaleidoscope of slants and angles on the soul and character of a once exotic and remote country. As Stephen Hough declares, Spain’s very colours are rich and dark, no powder blues or eau-de-Nil, but sumptuously rich yellows, golds and reds. Spain, for all her beguiling secrets and undertones, is more vibrant than subtle, more pungent than delicate. Yet if much of her music seems bathed in a harsh Mediterranean light it is also music of the night, of a grateful nocturnal retreat into the shadows away from the heat of the day. The religious influence, with frequently tolling bells, is also strong. This is the birthplace of the Jesuits, Carmelites and Saint John of the Cross, a world of agony and ecstasy, of severity and a luxuriant reaction to such austere authority. Hard to find in today’s commercialized Spain, the old violent and secretive spirit lingers on, largely hidden yet still unmistakably there, a memory of a rich, proudly nationalistic past known to Soler, Granados, Albéniz, Falla and Mompou.
Antonio Soler, like so many leaders of the Spanish artistic community, was from Catalonia, an area where the boundaries between France and Spain blur to produce a distinctive language, voice and culture. As a self-confessed disciple of Scarlatti, Soler wrote many sonatas, chiefly in binary form, and these, together with an audacious treatise, were considered so outlandish that he became known as ‘a devil dressed as a monk’ (Soler had taken holy orders at an early age). In the F sharp major Sonata convention is indeed turned topsy-turvy with one witty and characterful surprise after another. Alternately melancholy and exuberant the Sonata achieves a typically Spanish whimsy and volatility.
Spanish Romanticism proved an indelible influence on Enrique Granados. With typically Romantic exclusiveness he took only what he wanted from this inspiration. He ignored the satiric violence and turmoil which are so often the other side of the Romantic coin and focused instead on a world of decorously induced passion and sublimated love. The Valses poéticos (1887) are the reverse of Granados’s masterpiece Goyescas (music which gave Ernest Newmann ‘the voluptuous sense of passing the fingers through masses of richly coloured jewels’) and are of an almost classic cut and economy. Yet the opening bunny-hop dance in rapid duple time is enlivened with a typically piquant dissonance, and the full-circle return to the first beguiling waltz is one of many surprises that make you wonder why this music is not in the repertoire of many more pianists.
Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia is his masterpiece and for Stephen Hough it may well be considered the greatest Impressionist sequence for the piano. A tapestry of Spain and of Andalusia, the southern and gypsy Spain in particular, its four books stretch virtuosity far beyond the limits of all but the finest pianists. The influence of Liszt rather than Chopin (a key influence on Granados) is everywhere and so, too, is the distinctive Spanish tang insisted on by the musicologist Felipe Pedrell. Evocación is a sultry introduction to the set and although there are elements of the fandanguillo and the Navarrese jota the music is more general than local or specific. Free-wheeling and improvisatory, its poetry (espressivo and très souple) is lazily flicked into life when not lost in its own reverie. The fiery finale to Book II, Triana, on the other hand, is of extreme difficulty (though Godowsky later mischievously extended its elaboration). Triana reflects the gaiety and abandon of a popular suburb of Seville utilizing the sevillanas and the toreros’ march which opens the bullfight ceremony.
Federico Mompou, whom Wilfrid Mellers in his superb study Le jardin retrouvé calls ‘a minor muse’, returns us to the eternal verities, to a timeless knowledge and intuition, beyond passing notions and fashions, beyond the chaotic present and uncertain future. Mompou’s ‘Paradise Regained’ is the reverse of that familiar journey from ‘innocence’ to ‘experience’, a place where we could be wiser but not necessarily sadder. The four pieces by Mompou on this recording are from Impresiones íntimas. Pájaro triste was inspired by a caged linnet, its plaintive cry surely conveying a sadness beyond a purely local concern, a suffering for all cruelly confined natural life. La barca wheels obsessively round a single idea, while Secreto, in the unusual key of C sharp major, retains its mystery. Gitano, despite an inquieto instruction, brings an often serenely enigmatic cycle to a happy close.
Federico Longas’s Aragón was published in 1935 and dedicated to Horowitz. Ernesto Lecuona, Cuba’s master of coffee-table charm, never wrote anything as insinuating or virtuosic. There are hints of Turina’s La Feria (from Sevilla, Op 2) and Albéniz’s Navarra, but Longas’s style and content are so scintillating and infectious that only a Puritan could fail to respond.
From Spain to France and a ready response to a colourful neighbour. For Falla, Debussy’s La soirée dans Grenade (from Estampes), in habanera rhythm, was more evocative of a beloved and famously picturesque city than anything he could create, while La sérénade interrompue (from Préludes, Book I), once again conjures a richly imagined Spain. Again, and ironically, this is no facile reduction, but the voice of someone who speaks Spanish with all the authority of a native. Graphic and even programmatic, the prelude suggests the disconsolate serenader with his typical Andalusian cante hondo, a dissonant retaliation (a hurled chamber pot, perhaps?), persistence, and a final crestfallen retreat. La Puerta del Vino (from Préludes, Book II), once more in habanera rhythm, is a musical portrait of the gateway to the thirteenth-century Alhambra palace in Granada. Written in an authentic Andalusian style this evocation (one that finally led to Falla’s Fantasía bética of 1918) resulted from second-hand experience, from a postcard sent from southern Spain.
Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, arranged by Maurice Dumesnil, reflects in a radically different way the composer’s love of Spain. Born in Ciboure, near the Spanish border, Ravel’s mother was a Basque and the composer’s mixed nationality is expressed in music that has all of his studied elegance and suppleness.
Such memorable tributes are followed by a no less affectionate regard from other countries. For Stephen Hough, Godowsky’s decoration of the Albéniz Tango is the least Spanish item on his album. Composed in Chicago it is music inseparable from the salon, and so too is Scharwenka’s Spanisches Ständchen, a music-hall parody of the Spanish style where a rapid pattering waltz is interrupted with perky interjections. Walter Niemann’s Evening in Seville is an even more seductive treat or trifle that would surely have tickled Noël Coward’s fancy.
Finally, Stephen Hough’s own punningly entitled On Falla, a delectable gift celebrating my partnership (officially sealed after thirty years) with Lyndon Scarffe. Ending his programme with a burst of southern fire Stephen Hough remembers Falla’s Fantasía bética and Ritual Fire Dance and captures with uncanny skill music ‘as abrupt as when there’s slid/Its rich gold blazing pall/From some black coffin lid’.
Bryce Morrison © 2006