It has been 40 years since Deutsche Grammophon issued one of its most surprising best-sellers of all time, a selection of delicate piano leaves by a Norwegian composer famed for orchestral thunder. No-one expected the Russian pianist Emil Gilels to show up in Berlin with Grieg’s music in 1974, and the pianist complicated matters further by refusing to say in advance which pieces he was about to play and in what order. The resultant album went on to become a legend.
Four decades later, a British pianist with a mind of his own has set about the pieces—in a different order, not all the same ones and from a contemporary perspective. Stephen Hough has a heavier touch than Gilels, more in keeping with Grieg’s marching trolls and mountain kings. He’s also good at storytelling in pieces like ‘Solitary Traveller’ and ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’, though I’m not quite sure what’s meant to be going on in the one called 'Erotikon' (which Gilels prudishly omitted).
There is any amount of magic in these miniatures and an infinite variety of mood in ‘Homesickness’ and ‘Summer’s Eve’. Grieg wrote piano music throughout his life, from an Arietta of the 1860s to a 1901 leaf of 'Remembrances' that has no end, leaving us dangling in the air. Hough’s set is a worthy successor to Gilels, and that’s saying a lot. My sole reservation is the piano sound, which is a trifle clipped and takes some getting used to. A Yamaha CFX, the booklet says. On second hearing, it sounds a little softer.