Stephen Hough doesn’t do modern, in that he often puts together highly distinctive programmes featuring two or more composers played with old-fashioned expressive largesse and here we have a wonderful series of alternating exotica from Janáček (whose piano music is scandalously neglected) and Scriabin.
In the latter’s Fifth Sonata there are numerous time signature and tempo changes, including several sections marked presto or prestissimo. Interestingly Hough ignores these markings and concentrates on integrating the sections into a coherent whole, using a very rich tonal palette. He is not however afraid in Vers la flamme to use a steely touch and no sustaining pedal to emphasise the intervals and harshness of the right-hand in the concluding section. Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata only lasts seven or eight minutes; as with many other pianists the last movement isn’t Prestissimo volando, but there is a sense of cumulative momentum and the Op 32 Andante cantabile is beautifully voiced. One could argue that some Russian pianists better capture the quixotic nature of these works and produce a more authentic sound, but Hough’s approach is very compelling.
What makes this release special are Hough’s exquisitely sensitive Janáček performances. Book One of On the overgrown path consists of ten reflective miniatures, which via rubato, tempo and dynamic variation, and an extended range of colours and textures Hough conveys a profound sense of questioning, wistful melancholy. All of these qualities are found in the Sonata (the second movement is entitled Death) combined with power and a feeling of quiet inevitability; indeed these works have never been done better.
As usual Hyperion have done an excellent job with the sound in every way bar one. The balance is nicely middle-distance, being high-resolution there is space around the instrument, a believable acoustic signature and no excessive reverberation, all of which—as with Steven Osborne’s recent Schubert recital from the same venue and company—brings a palpable sense of realism, of being there. Clarity and definition are exemplary without any loss of body, weight or richness, which means one can appreciate the tonal shading mentioned above and Hough’s pedal control. No register dominates, but when needed (as in Vers la flamme) the treble cuts through, the bass has real impact and never booms.
The weakness is the dynamic range. For comparative purposes in the Scriabin Sonatas a 1979 Decca LP (SXL 6705) with Vladimir Ashkenazy was chosen, where the piano sinks effortlessly to triple piano, which adds enormously to the expressive impact of the performances and it is a pity that the Hyperion team have eschewed such refinement; unless of course Stephen Hough doesn’t do ppp in Janáček and Scriabin, which would be very worrying!
In terms of presentation, as ever with Hyperion, the booklet and download facilities are excellent. Rather amusingly Stephen Hough prefaces the sleeve notes with a couple of paragraphs about the music, including ‘uninterrupted Scriabin can become cloying, too much Janáček can become exhausting’; thankfully he talks nonsense rather plays it!