Even on the flourishing, crowded landscape of early twenty-first-century piano playing, so rich in varied talents functioning at high artistic levels, inevitably a few stand out, unmistakable for their singular originality. It would surprise me if, among candidates for inclusion with the crème de la crème of that elect, most short lists did not include the name of 52-year-old Stephen Hough. His international career was launched three decades ago with a first prize in the prestigious Naumburg Competition following studies in Manchester and New York. He is a gifted composer and transcriber and a sought-after teacher. He blogs for The Telegraph, has written a book, won a prize for his poetry, had his paintings exhibited in London and was the recipient of a 2001 MacArthur Fellowship. And if all that didn’t qualify him as an over-achiever, he has some 87 recordings currently available on 15 labels of the music of 102 composers, including his own.
Voracious musical curiosity has led Hough into corners of the repertoire not often explored by his colleagues. His gentle insistence that we pay attention to Hummel, one of the central figures of piano history whom we seldom hear today, resulted in splendid recordings of two of the concertos and three sonatas (Chandos in 1987 and Hyperion, reviewed in December 2003). Hough does not disdain lighter fare, opening the door to some delightfully refreshing programming concepts, such as a ‘French Album’ (reviewed in September 2012) that juxtaposes his own transcriptions of Delibes and Massenet with a Liszt Réminiscences after Halévy, Bach-Cortot, and works of Fauré, Poulenc and Ravel, among others. Yet when he returns to the canonic repertoire, it is always with great seriousness of purpose and with open eyes and ears.
His recent concerto recordings are an excellent case in point. Concertos are usually considered the soloist’s medium, and indeed many classic conducting texts call them precisely that. In modern concert life, the instrumental soloist is usually allotted the first slot of the final rehearsal, 20 minutes or so. Segments of the concerto are run through, largely to establish tempos, and any problem spots are given a cursory glance. Then the conductor initiates polite applause, signalling to the soloist that time’s up, before turning her or his attention to rehearsing the ‘meat’ of the programme, the symphony or other purely orchestral works, on which full focus and concentration will be lavished. Thus in performance, concertos, particularly the most played ones, can have a certain proforma professionalism that seems, in less than ideal circumstances, little more than business as usual.
Lately Hough’s concerto recordings seem to embody the antithesis of such practices. The conductors with whom he works do not accompany. They collaborate, and do so in the fullest sense, with an open-minded approach to the score that yields interpretative fruits as fresh as those disclosed by the soloist. Interpretations built from the ground up, unbeholden to any threadbare tradition, and abundant with heretofore neglected details result. Listening to them can be thrilling, as in the case of the Tchaikovsky concertos with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, or revelatory, as were the Liszt concertos with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic (reviewed in April 2010 and November 2011 respectively). This new set of Brahms concertos (Hough recorded his first set with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony in 1998 and 1990) maintain and even extend those high standards.
Mark Wigglesworth leads the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg in a trajectory that, from the timpani thunderclap punctuating the pedal-point surge that launches the D minor Concerto, enacts the relentless unfolding of an implacable tragedy. This is undoubtedly young Brahms, but without a trace of reticence or ambivalence. Towering, angular chords have edges that could slice stone and the strings’ high-register trills shriek in recoiling alarm. When energy subsides and the piano enters, Hough is at pains to articulate the gently swaying quavers with Brahms’s non-legato, legato and staccato indications, long since ignored by everyone in favour of an undifferentiated legato line. The effect is immediately striking—a disconnect—as though the protagonist inadvertently wandered onto a scene of such violence and devastation that he is unable or unwilling to comprehend what surrounds him. Thus, through the accretion of another two dozen instances of close reading, intelligent contrasts and eloquent rhetoric, do Hough, Wigglesworth and the Salzburgers construct a towering edifice, conjuring waves of power and tapping veins of poetry from the depths of this perhaps least guarded of Brahms’s creations. The Adagio moves quickly enough to allow for the application of exquisitely wrought rubato at appropriate junctures without risk of collapse; it concludes with a cadenza that could be the ascent of an angel. Rhythmic vitality and crystalline textures imbue this Rondo whose escape from death seems a vigorous, ritualized dance.
The seemingly vast B flat Concerto (actually it is about the same length as the D minor) requires radically different strategies. Without sacrificing grandeur or mass, this performance is distinctively colourful and shapely—one is almost tempted to say lithe. Significant credit is due Wigglesworth, whose close attention to balances render the orchestral choirs luminous, and whose wonderfully coaxing, elastic beat never becomes ponderous. Hough seems constitutionally incapable of the pasty-thick textures, constantly raised dampers, glacial tempos and muddy colours with which many pianists baste this piece in particular, in the name of a ‘Brahms sound’. He demonstrates time and again how a leaner sound allows this music greater flexibility, not to mention enhanced expressiveness through subtly shaped phrasing. The scherzo whips up terrific passion, only to be startlingly disarmed by the understated lyricism of the trio. The slow movement comes as close as any I know to the time-stopping starry firmament that Artur Schnabel and Adrian Boult created in 1935. And I confess—pace Backhaus, Rubinstein, Serkin, Richter, Fleisher, Angelich et al—I never knew the Rondo could sparkle with such grace and wit. Both Marcus Pouget’s cello obbligato and the uncredited horn solos are superb.
There’s nothing to argue with in either the conception or execution of these stimulating, heartfelt performances. The engineers did a tremendous job of capturing a fully dimensional, sensual sound that is rich in detail, while providing a welcome true-to-life balance between piano and orchestra. Over the past week and a half I’ve returned to them again and again, always with great pleasure and constantly hearing new, interesting details. Dyed-in-the-wool devotees of Brahms, as well as those who desperately need a new take on him, will find here much to savour and ponder.