In the booklet notes to this riveting and beautifully recorded release, Stephen Hough describes Brahms's late piano pieces as 'salon music taken to the nth degree'. It would be difficult to take issue with Hough's statement. Yet the emotional compass of these four sets of character pieces embraces far more than intimate reflections.
Indeed, to all intents and purposes, Brahms not only looks back with some degree of nostalgia and regret to the Romanticism of his earlier career, but also daringly points forward to the 20th century with the frequent use of unexpected dissonant harmonies, some distinctly ambiguous rhythmic patterns and a colouristic approach to timbre that at times seems to anticipate the ways in which Debussy and Ravel approached writing for the keyboard.
These impressions are certainly enhanced by Hough's insightful and masterly control of keyboard texture, features that are particularly helped here by the wonderfully rich and sonorous bass notes that emanate from his Yamaha piano. In particular, I was mesmerised by the veiled quality of sound and almost timeless approach to rubato that characterises his interpretations of the more introverted pieces, such as the E major Intermezzo, Op 116 No 4 and the B minor Intermezzo, Op 119 No 1. At the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum, Hough brings a powerful almost percussive edginess to turbulent pieces such as the D minor Capriccio, Op 116 No 1, the G minor Ballade, Op 118 No 3 and the extraordinarily defiant battle that rages through the Rhapsodie, Op 119 No 4. Most compelling of all, perhaps, is Hough's searingly intense and dramatic interpretation of the E flat minor Intermezzo, Op 118 No 6.
There are undoubtedly many worthy recordings of this repertoire in the current catalogue, but Hough has something special to say about the music, and this recording certainly warrants an enthusiastic recommendation.