Complete: Toccata and Fugue [8'40]
Exquis! Stephen Hough presents an enchanting programme of French music, played with the filigree perfection and total command of the music’s expressive world that make him one of the most admired pianists of today. In typical Houghian style this recital is full of surprises and lesser-known gems from the repertoire, as well as works by the masters Fauré, Ravel, Debussy and Poulenc. A particular delight is Hough’s own arrangement of the Massenet song Crépuscule, a ravishing exercise in creative yet faithful transcription. This release is both a tribute to the lyric genius which flowered in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France, and a glimpse into the musical mind of a great pianist.
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'Ah! Chabrier, I love him as one loves a father! An indulgent father, always merry, his pockets full of tasty tit-bits. Chabrier’s music is a treasure house you can never exhaust; I just could not do without it! It consoles me on my darkest days …’ With that, Francis Poulenc deftly, if unwittingly, sums up many of the pleasures on offer in Stephen Hough’s latest ‘piano album’, this one dedicated to French delights and which the pianist describes as ‘a sort of musical dessert trolley’.
We start though, in a characteristically Houghian twist, with a figure who was in fact Swiss-born and not really a composer at all: the legendary pianist Alfred Cortot. His take on one of the most famous works in the classical canon—whether or not by Bach, and scholars are still scrapping about that—is a refreshing essay in the simplest means to create the maximum impact. In place of the mighty and freely pianistic transcriptions of the D minor Toccata and Fugue by Busoni, Tausig, Grainger and Friedman, to name just the obvious candidates, here is a study in Gallic refinement, which is not to say it is lightweight in any sense: it maintains the epic quality of the original to perfection. Perhaps it is precisely because Cortot wasn’t a composer or even a composer–pianist that he gets to the heart of the matter so compellingly. To this, Stephen Hough has added his own subtle changes and clarifications, bringing the work ineluctably into the twenty-first century. The same qualities of concision and directness of effect govern Cortot’s magical transcription of the Arioso from Bach’s F minor Keyboard Concerto. There’s not a spare note anywhere, bringing the sublime melody into a sharp focus, which is then seasoned with a gentle rubato, applied according to the taste of the individual pianist. Cortot himself liked the seasoning to be generous, though never overbearing.
There follow four pieces that demonstrate the sheer breadth of Gabriel Fauré’s style. His nocturnes and barcarolles (thirteen of each) are arguably the pinnacles of his pianistic achievement and offer a snapshot of his long career. Strikingly, the sixth Nocturne and fifth Barcarolle were written simultaneously, in 1894. Temperamentally, they couldn’t be more contrasted. The Nocturne opens with a quiet majesty, the harmonies utterly characteristic. Like the greatest of Chopin’s nocturnes, we have no idea what’s in store, with Fauré introducing first a more animated second idea, its agitation emanating from the fervent syncopations, and then a light-filled central section, powered by iridescent arpeggios, which he then proceeds to combine with the other two ideas with almost nonchalant ease, before the music finally stills and fades into silence.
The fifth Barcarolle is all angles, emphasized not only by its syncopated rhythms but also a restlessness that comes from a refusal to settle harmonically or melodically. It has none of the easeful qualities that we traditionally associate with the genre, as Fauré introduces a tortured development which brings together the preceding ideas to devastating effect. It is only in the coda that we finally find peace.
All his life Fauré loved to improvise, a skill honed during his years studying organ and church music at the École Niedermeyer. The Huit Pièces brèves collect together gems from over three decades. The Improvisation heard here dates from 1901 and was written as a cunningly demanding sight-reading test at the Paris Conservatoire. Cunning because in place of blatant complexities come two minutes of the most musical nuance, limpidity of sound and rhythmic subtlety: a true test of any budding pianist.
In an innocent-ear test how long would it take you to guess the author of Fauré’s fifth Impromptu (1909), in which darting whole-tone scales flicker with an undefined unease? Its incessant rippling motion gives it an étude-like feel and, while its Puckish final flourish is witty, it’s disconcerting too.
Ravel regarded himself as Basque as much as French and his Alborada del gracioso, the fourth of his Miroirs, is just one of his explorations of this aspect of his heritage. But though his Spanish fever had a personal aspect, it had long been gripping the nation too, ever since Bizet’s Carmen and Manet’s Young Woman in a Spanish Costume. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the year Ravel completed Miroirs—1905—he’d encountered Chabrier’s España for the first time. ‘Alborada del gracioso’ is an elusive title to translate, though the composer suggested ‘Morning Song of the Clown’. But a gracioso is not a clown in the English sense, any more than the character Punch equates to Pulcinella. Ravel’s transformation of the keyboard into a guitar, complete with pungent chords and lively strumming, conjures up an atmosphere so heady that you can almost smell the dust of the streets. It’s a far cry from Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, painted just two years earlier.
From Ravel’s sharply etched portrait to ravishing melody, pure and simple. You can almost hear the swish of the 78 and the fragile tones and starched French diction of a long-gone soprano in Stephen Hough’s tender transcription of Jules Massenet’s ravishing song Crépuscule. And Hough respects the discreet accompaniment of the original version, supporting the ecstatic vocal line. But in fact his inspiration comes not from the parlour but from the theatre, and specifically the ballet L’histoire de Manon, which is made up of music by Massenet, Crépuscule included, created by Kenneth MacMillan in 1974. It has become a signature role of the great French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, to whom this is dedicated.
While Poulenc, Fauré, Ravel and Debussy are, in their different ways, universally acknowledged, Chabrier’s sun has failed to rise as high. Listening to his music, this seems inexplicable, now as in his own era, when Ravel famously (though perhaps disingenuously) announced that he’d have been more proud of writing Chabrier’s opera Le roi malgré lui than the complete Wagner Ring. And Poulenc was to declare that the Pièces pittoresques were as crucial a part of French music as Debussy’s Préludes. Chabrier wrote the bulk of his Pièces pittoresques as a kind of holiday diary while staying on the coast at Saint-Pair-sur-Mer in 1880. He was crazy about the sea, finding it hugely inspirational, and promised to send his publisher a ‘little piece’ each week, though the response was hardly positive, his first offering being greeted with flat incomprehension. The unassuming Mélancolie, with its murmured dialogue between highest and lowest registers, is placed second in the set, and perhaps it is the gulf between the simple title of the collection and the subtlety of the music that puts off casual listeners.
Where would Poulenc have been without his melancholic streak? It’s that juxtaposition of emotions that makes this composer once dubbed ‘half man, half thug’ so endlessly fascinating. And we find both aspects of his character rubbing shoulders here. Mélancolie opens with a wistful melody, almost Chopinesque in tone, set against a rippling backdrop; the whole effect is unashamedly nostalgic and gives little hint of the emotional rollercoaster to come. And as so often with Poulenc it is the moments where he’s smiling, where the harmonies and key flirt with the major, that he tugs at your heartstrings most profoundly. It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that Mélancolie was completed in 1940, in war-torn France.
Poulenc’s fourth Nocturne, with its hint of the seventh of Chopin’s Op 28 Preludes, has a kind of lazy rhetoric but always coloured with the composer’s characteristic piquancy. Among his series of eight nocturnes, it is one of the few that actually fits the title in its traditional sense. Subtitled ‘Bal fantôme’, it is prefaced by a quote from the novel Le visionnaire by the writer Julien Green, a friend of the composer: an invalid, confined to his sick-bed, hears distant strains of a ball and recalls happier times of his youth. The sly semitonal movement gives those distant memories of the waltz a distinctly twentieth-century edge.
The Fifteen Improvisations conceal beneath their unassuming collective title a succession of contrasting and fleeting gems. No 8, written in 1934, blends a Prokofiev-like angularity with an astonishing range of mood and material offered up for our entertainment like a miniature ballet, all crammed into little more than a minute.
In one sense Cécile Chaminade was a woman born out of her time. Bizet was so impressed by her precocity that he dubbed her his ‘little Mozart’, but any plans she had to study at the Paris Conservatoire were scotched by her father, who deemed it beneath her social standing (though she did manage to study composition privately with Benjamin Godard, no less). On the other hand, she was very much of her time, stylistically, particularly in her works for her own instrument. Her zest for melody is indeed Mozartian in its apparent effortlessness, as Automne vividly demonstrates, but also on display here is her prodigious keyboard technique, the simple pictorial title masking the fact this is one of a set of six concert études, with the emphasis firmly on ‘concert’.
No matter how exalted the Parisian circles in which Charles-Valentin Alkan moved—and he counted Chopin and Eugène Delacroix among his friends—there is a sense of his being an outsider, not simply culturally, as a Jew in a society renowned for its anti-semitism, but musically too. And indeed he became increasingly reclusive during the last four decades of his long life. It is no coincidence that Alkan’s twenty-five Préludes in all the minor and major keys from 1847 should have followed in the footsteps of Chopin’s. But why twenty-five? Because, with resolution uppermost in his mind, the last of these pieces reaffirms the C major of the beginning. The eighth Prélude, La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer (‘The song of the mad woman on the sea shore’), is one of the most unsettling of all his works, prefiguring by several decades Liszt’s late style in its unmelodic melodic line, and a claustrophobic sense of ennui, reinforced by an almost maddeningly incessant accompaniment.
After such intensity, Debussy’s landscape seems reassurance itself. The composer’s profound affection for the visual arts is well known and he shared with Monet a fascination with visiting the same sights again and again. Moonlight was one such subject that he returned to repeatedly. The most famous occasion has to be Clair de lune from his youthful Suite bergamasque of 1890. It originally bore the title ‘Promenade sentimentale’ after a Verlaine poem—from which we should perhaps deduce that over-emoting at a dirge-like tempo was not the composer’s intention.
The final two works on this recording transport us back into the theatre. Delibes’ arcadian ballet Sylvia initially met with little success in the Paris of the 1870s. Fast-forward eighty years to 1952 and enter Sir Frederick Ashton, who rescued the work, re-choreographing it and turning it into a repertoire piece. ‘Pizzicati’ is by far the best-known melody in a remarkable score, originally heard within the Act 3 Divertissement. Stephen Hough’s achievement is in maintaining the spirit of the music, while making it sound completely at home on the keyboard, the addition of some delicious roulades adding spice.
Fromental Halévy (1799–1862), meanwhile, had taken the Paris Opéra by storm in 1835 with the grandest of grand French operas, La juive (The Jewess), a feat he was never to match—though he kept on trying, producing some forty operas. So ubiquitous was La juive that it was a natural choice for the young Liszt to transform into a paraphrase of gothic brilliance. What’s striking is that though he was still only in his mid-twenties when he wrote Réminiscences de ‘La juive’, he thoroughly Liszt-ifies Halévy’s creation. Drawing on motifs from Acts 3 and 5, Liszt weaves a phantasmagorical fantasy, often teasingly revealing only part of Halévy’s melodies; contemporary audiences must have been delighted by this game of hide-and-seek every bit as much as they were awed by the overt and unabashed virtuosic aplomb.
Harriet Smith © 2012