The Hough discography is enhanced by this delightful recital disc from the winner of the Gramophone Gold Disc Award, acclaimed recently as ‘Britain’s finest pianist’ (Sunday Times), and as one of the six greatest pianists performing in the world today (The Guardian).
The selection of works reflects a concert programme which Stephen performed all round the world in the 2007/8 season, with a quirkily-addressed theme of Variations and Waltzes. These appear in many guises: for instance the ‘first half’ concludes with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 32 in C minor, with its extraordinary set of variations in the second movement. Then Stephen takes the listener on a whirlwind tour of the waltz, performing some of the triumphs of the genre with his trademark immaculate polish and unerring style. The disc ends with some typical Hough whimsy—as ever, utterly charming and full of surprises.
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This recital divides in the middle to form two, highly contrasting, mini-recitals. The first half juxtaposes music of great turbulence and utter tranquility. Mendelssohn’s lean, passionate Variations sérieuses seem almost to fall over themselves in their impatient, inexorable propulsion from the opening D minor chord to the closing D minor chord, yet they also form one of the composer’s most tightly constructed works for the piano. The first movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata is even more rigorous in design, the tragic mood of its material explored with the most academic of techniques. ‘Passion’ shares a common derivation with ‘passive’—something done to us—and it is an irony that both the Mendelssohn and Beethoven, turbulently subjective in feeling, are crafted with such sober, skilful hands. From the final, C major chord of the sonata’s first movement, almost but not quite at rest, we find ourselves moving through a set of variations which almost seem to develop a key, or a colour, rather than a theme. The technique used is from the chemistry laboratory: a breakdown into smaller and smaller units of the same lilting cell until, after the ecstasy, we spiral upwards, dissolved in a shimmering trill.
Weber’s Invitation to the Dance is actually the oldest piece on this programme, pre-dating the Beethoven by three years, and it is the ‘origin of species’ of the concert waltz. If Weber invites, Chopin accepts—giving us the most important corpus of piano works in this genre, two of which are heard in this recital. It was surely from this Pole’s presence in the salons of Paris that the three French waltzes ultimately derive: the Saint-Saëns, one of his late pieces exploring unsettling, yet diatonic harmonies; the Chabrier, a sliver of Gallicism of the utmost refinement; and the Debussy, a work of tooth-decaying sweetness. The Valse lente was a popular form in the French cafés and restaurants of the time, and ‘slower than slow’ is not so much a tempo as the sophisticated composer’s semi-humorous take on a more-than-popular genre.
Liszt, no stranger to French salons, wrote his two waltzes in this programme later in his life when he had left that world of swishing, sparkling gowns, and both waltzes draw back a curtain on a world of mysticism and the supernatural. The ‘Forgotten Waltz’ (or perhaps, half-remembered waltz) explores a deeply disturbing world of faulty recall: could it be the partner from long ago who has slipped the mind rather than the music? But there is no forgetting the vision or partner of the Mephisto Waltz! The devil himself appears in the first bar and hovers over every moment of this most possessed of Liszt’s Faustian works, transforming himself into musical disguises of ever more seduction and frenzy.
Waltzing Matilda is the unofficial Australian national anthem—a bright, popular song with dim, obscure origins. It always puzzled me though that it was in 4/4 time, thus not a waltz in the traditionally understood way. For an Australian tour I decided to make this arrangement—as a tribute to a country I love and of which I have dual-citizenship, as well as to give Matilda the chance to fulfill her destiny … three-in-a-bar!
Stephen Hough © 2009