Stephen Hough and Steven Isserlis are old-fashioned (in the best possible sense) virtuosi. Isserlis uses gut strings, occasional portamenti, variable vibrato, isn’t afraid to make big expressive gestures, while Hough uses a style of rubato, dynamic and tempo variation that Josef Hoffman might have recognised. So it comes as no surprise to find that the first subject of the Grieg Sonata has drive and attack (as does the development) the second subject is more impassioned than the marked tranquilo and whenever it reappears the duo vary their phrasing and thereby change the mood. The main theme of the slow movement is sung by both artists and the last movement has tremendous impetus, with an unmarked, but very effective, final rallentando.
They take a similar approach to the Mendelssohn, where the opening Allegro assai vivace is fast and decidedly con fuoco and Hough revels in the virtuoso piano writing. The scherzo bounces along at a relaxed tempo with some delightfully romantic phrasing in the Trio, although the Adagio is perhaps slightly too fast and Isserlis’s reluctance to maintain a legato line is disconcerting; both artists bring power and commitment to the finale.
Stephen Hough’s Sonata (2013) opens with a plaintive theme that is developed (or perhaps over-developed?) in a quasi-romantic style; this segues into a wistful Allegretto and concludes with a soulful Adagio. This is accessible, tuneful music, which may need a little pruning to be accepted into the core repertoire.
This then is an arresting release, which contains powerful, deeply felt performances that demand to be heard and as such carries the highest recommendation.
As ever from Hyperion the sound is very impressive. The overall balance is middle-distance, the instruments are realistically placed in relation to one another, neither dominates and they are locked in place at all playback levels. Unfortunately like many other labels—perhaps for reasons of cost—Hyperion do like to record in churches which tend to be too reverberant for chamber music (the Wigmore Hall—the world’s finest chamber acoustic—has a maximum reverberation time of only 1.5 seconds) but this is very much a matter of personal taste.
Because the files are high resolution the instruments have greater richness and presence than found on compressed 16bit CDs, which is very important for those who want something more akin to what you would hear in the flesh. Instrumental timbres are also far more realistically captured, which when added to the very even balance of registers, further adds to the sense of being there.
If there is one criticism it is that the dynamic range is too constricted. Having spent a lot of time listening to DSD files played back in native format, one realises that that format presents a far more realistic range and you do wonder if recording engineers deliberately lessen this to make domestic listening more ‘comfortable’?