It would be difficult to find two more dissimilar contemporaries than these two composers. Strongly influenced by Chopin, Liszt and Wagner, Scriabin exploits an unbridled level of sensuality and pushes conventional tonality to its very limits. Janáček is no less impassioned, yet confronts images of foreboding and tragedy in an assertive idiosyncratic language strongly tinged with folk music. Stephen Hough’s juxtaposition of works by both figures in this recital proves to be inspired, not only emphasising the individual strengths of each master, but also reminding us that some of most remarkable music for piano dates from the first 14 years of the 20th century.
Hough has all the bravura needed to surmount the huge technical demands in the fleet prestissimo second movement of Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata, here despatched with breathtaking lightness of touch. Even more impressive is his account of the Fifth Sonata, which builds up musical momentum with such lucidity and care for dynamic contrast that there is real a sense of arrival at the final ecstatic climax.
This feeling of elation which characterises the closing passage of the Fifth Sonata, or the final bars of the more harmonically daring Vers la flamme, contrasts strongly with the claustrophobic pain and anguish Hough projects throughout the two movements of Janáček's Sonata. After such emotional intensity, it’s a relief to turn to the almost childlike simplicity of the first book of On the overgrown path. Here Hough isn’t quite as effective as Marc-André Hamelin (also on Hyperion) in delineating a narrative in the nine pieces that moves inexorably from fragility and innocence to impending doom. Nonetheless, his account of the seventh piece ‘Unutterable anguish’ is exceptionally moving.