It’s rare for a pianist to reveal familiar repertoire in fresh and newly minted ways without being willful, eccentric, or unorthodox. Not Stephen Hough. His expertly curated collection of Grieg Lyric Pieces abounds with individual touches, yet the interpretations couldn’t sound more natural or inevitable.
The pianist plays the Op 12 No 1 Arietta faster than usual, allowing the familiar melody to effortlessly float over the bar lines, while the Berceuse lilts with perceptible yet amazingly subtle rubato. Using almost no pedal, Hough strips off a century of sentiment and frilly phrasing from Butterfly (Op 43 No 1), and the music really takes off. Note also the Little bird’s precisely calibrated trilled chords. Hough’s conversational phrase shaping liberates Erotikon and At the cradle from the languid and foursquare performance traditions that have followed these pieces around for decades. He intensifies the Valse-Impromptu’s tart melodic dissonances by way of a firmly projected right-hand legato against the relatively muted and clipped left-hand accompaniment. Many pianists knock off the March of the Trolls at a breakneck pace, yet Hough’s slower, steadier tempo lends itself to greater precision and character in the quick flourishes.
Much as I love to draw out and slobber over Bell ringing’s open fifths as if the music were wandering in from a New Age seminar, I must admit that Hough’s animated understatement and dry-eyed directness is closer to the composer’s mark. The pianist also subjects Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’s thick rolled chords and heavy textures to a welcome slimming and muscle-toning cure. And for a good example of Hough’s exquisite timing and timbral sensitivity, go to the final selection, Remembrances, and listen to the main theme (the aforementioned Arietta in waltz time) when it reiterates a half-step down. That’s just one of many magical, revelatory moments in a gorgeous release that pianophiles and Grieg fans alike will cherish for keeps.