Part connoisseur, part curator, part maverick, pianist Stephen Hough has always had a flair for serving up unexpectedly entertaining programmes, and his latest disc, Stephen Hough’s Dream Album, is no exception. Anyone anticipating a conventional collection of watery, impressionistic dreamscapes will soon be disabused of that notion by the album’s cover, Hieronymus Bosch at his most surreal, taken from the Temptation of St Anthony triptych. This is a marvellously varied collection of flights of fancy, transformations and transmutations which takes us through Hough’s personal dreamworld, the pieces often having special meaning for him. Established classics like Liszt and Dvořák rub shoulders with light-music favourites from Coates, Chaminade and Tate, Hough's own arrangements of everything from the Johann Strauss the elder to Ludwig Minkus and Matilda of waltzing fame, and even some of the pianist’s original compositions.
Throughout there’s a sort of ‘knowing innocence’ to Hough's playing, a teasing sincerity: he is a great judge of just how far to cast a wink in the listener’s direction without breaking the spell or impeding the flow of the music. The programme gets underway with Austrian field marshal Radetzky exchanging his marching boots for the ballroom in a dazzling waltz arrangement where Strauss senior’s music seems to collide head-on with Ravel’s La Valse. A different, more sensual side to Vienna is touched on in Hough’s piano transcription of Richard Tauber’s 1928 hit Das alte Lied.
From Vienna the dream-flight transports the listener to Russia: Julius Isserlis’s In the Steppes (from his Memories of Childhood), two scintillating arrangements from Minkus’s Petipa ballet Don Quixote, and a surprisingly evocative transcription of Vasily Solovyov-Sedoy’s Soviet-era hit song Moscow Nights, with a nod or two to Rachmaninov artfully worked in along the way.
Searching performances of two transcendental studies, Harmonies du soir and the Étude in F minor, serve as reminders of what an accomplished Lisztian Hough is, even within the framework of a lighter context, while music by Albéniz and Ponce lends a gently Hispanic air to proceedings. Dohnányi’s Rhapsody in C is bracingly exuberant, by turns playful and grandiose, then it’s off to northern climes with the aged beauty of Sibelius’s Kuusi (The Spruce), and the lazy day-dreaming of William Seymer’s Solöga (Sun-eye).
The second half of the disc has a subtly lighter tone, with Cécile Chaminade’s once hugely popular, lilting Pas des écharpes (Scarf Dance) marking the halfway point. Hough deftly transforms the ubiquitous theme of Paganini’s violin Caprice no 24 into Niccolo’s Waltz, and makes a rich-textured but wistful piano transcription of the perennial Eric Coates favourite By the Sleepy Lagoon (beloved of so many Radio 4 listeners).
A skilfully intensified version of the Edwardian song Somewhere a Voice is Calling and a jazzy rhumba transformation (complete with fugal episode!) of Waltzing Matilda add to the growing feeling of surreal yet dreamy transportation. Salon favourites by Dvořák and Elgar, as well as Hough’s arrangement of the Kathleen Ferrier favourite Blow the Wind Southerly, lend a distinctly nostalgic note. Meanwhile, Hough’s own original compositions—Osmanthus Romp, Osmanthus Reverie and two Lullabies – bring a private side into focus, with a distinctive post-impressionist style and jazz inflections among their many attractive qualities.
Rounding off the programme is a delectably whimsical account of Mompou’s Jeunes filles au jardin, a lifelong favourite of Hough’s; its Messiaen-like interjections seem to emphasise the vivid but illusory nature of the worlds he has guided us through, or perhaps they are our wake-up call?
Hough plays a Yamaha CFX piano whose bright sound is particularly appropriate for this lighter repertoire, enhancing the overall feeling of relaxed good humour, while still responding well to the varied touch needed for some of the more ‘high-brow’ pieces. Above all, it is Hough’s ability to draw the listener into the music through playing of enormous colour and expressive range that makes this enchanting disc so successful. The performer’s own epigrammatic thoughts on each piece, fuller programme notes from Grant Hiroshima, and a well-focused recording from the Wyastone Estate Concert Hall all add to this album’s plentiful delights, and Hough’s many fans will need no encouragement to snap up a copy.