It is estimated that Liszt gave as many as 1000 recitals around Europe in the 1840s. As the great piano virtuoso of the mid-19th century, not to mention a famed heart-throb, he knew how to entertain his audiences. A glance at his repertoire shows armfuls of crowd-pleasing favourites, sentimental or dazzling to taste.
How po-faced piano recitals have become since then. It takes a personality of flair now to serve up a few bonbons in a recital and Stephen Hough is a master of the art, despite his assertion in a recent interview that he is 'less excited [these days] by the dessert trolley than the main course'.
His 'Dream Album' is a generous 80 minutes spent raiding a taster plate of those desserts. Hough has made a very personal selection, from pieces he has known since his childhood (Mompou’s delightful 'Jeunes filles au jardin') to gems by Albéniz, Elgar and Sibelius. It is also good to see Liszt himself putting in an appearance with his high Gothic 'Harmonies du soir' and Etude in F Minor.
The skills needed to bring off a programme like this include sparkling virtuosity and the nonchalance to suggest it was all nothing really. Hough has both, like that magician of the keyboard, Shura Cherkassky, in the previous generation.
He also contributes about half the items himself, either in the form of newly composed pieces (it was a wicked idea to refashion the well-known 'Radetzky' March as a waltz) or arrangements of popular pieces, 'Moscow Nights' and 'Blow the wind southerly' among them. What other leading pianist would give Eric Coates’s 'By the sleepy lagoon', the theme tune to Desert Island Discs, such a dreamily seductive air—or, indeed, think about playing it at all?