Leave it to Stephen Hough, the British-born pianist and composer, who also happens to be an inveterate blogger, painter and author of spiritual tracts, to discover a mother lode in an all but abandoned mine. A master of more pianistic styles than just about anybody, Hough is always on the lookout for the fresh and unusual, and never fails to check out places that others overlook. A few years back he recorded both the Liszt concertos with Andrew Litton conducting the Bergen Philharmonic in a white heat that sounded improvised on the spot. Not long after came his second recording of Brahms’s two concertos, this time with Mark Wigglesworth and the Mozarteum Orchestra, imbuing those war horses with a breathtaking emotional urgency that almost spoils other interpretations.
Now Hough invites us to listen again to the Lyric Pieces of Edvard Grieg. Some of these mood pictures, published between 1867 and 1901, approach five minutes in length, but most of them last only two or three. They had enormous influence on Debussy and Ravel, not to mention just about every American who composed for the piano up through the 1930s. But Grieg’s little gems are seldom heard in the concert hall, where heftier fare holds sway.
Hough’s highly personal selection of 27 of the 66 Lyric Pieces demonstrates what we’ve been missing. Each is a self-contained microcosm, here intimate, confiding, there extrovert with uncontainable joy. Despite their small scale, there’s nothing shy or retiring about these pieces. I suspect the only reason March of the Trolls hasn’t been used in a Disney animated film is that the musical imagery would overwhelm the visual. Hough plays it straight, and to marvelous effect. In a piece such as Little Bird, the title is superfluous because the musical chirps and hops could suggest nothing else. The palpable ache of 'Homesickness' is dispelled by an outpouring of loving congratulations evoked in Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.
Hough playfully captures Grieg’s kaleidoscopic moods and colors with an easy relish that’s hard to resist. If your summer didn’t include an invigorating walk among the wildflowers on the Norwegian fjords in brisk Scandinavian air, listening to this CD could be the next best thing.