At the end of his life, with all his friends and relatives dead, and all his hopes of romantic love unfulfilled, Johannes Brahms communed with his feelings in four sets of strange, intimate, haunted piano pieces. All are included on this wonderful new CD from Stephen Hough.
Nostalgic is the word often applied to these 20 pieces, and it’s true that several of them have an inconsolable sadness. But that overlooks the variety of mood within them. There are light, carefree pieces—one is even described as giocoso (joking). There are strange, shadowy intimations of a different world, where sadness can’t reach. There are huge, turbulent pieces all the more startling for being squeezed within a tiny time-frame—as if a hurricane has been captured in a bottle. Most moving of all are those sudden moments of swaying innocence that sometimes invade a piece, as if we’re being carried back to a time before consciousness and disappointment arrived to trouble our infant happiness.
These feelings are expressed in a piano texture which is rich and ripe almost to excess—a quality some pianists bring out with very generous pedal. And in a way it’s apt, because at a very deep level that luxurious 'Brahmsian mud' is connected to the way the music ventures towards unmentionable feelings, like a desire to return to the womb. But muddiness isn’t Hough’s way. The 58-year-old pianist (and former Telegraph writer) understands that a rich ripe sound is vital, but so is clarity.
Being clear allows him to shine a light on little details—important because these pieces don’t just summon up feelings, they take them on a journey of transformation. Hurt becomes resignation, anger turns into panic. Hough is super-aware of these changes of feeling, and uses the tiniest inflections—a pulling-back of tempo here, a stress on a normally unnoticed inner part there—to make them real.
Just occasionally, as in the Fifth Fantasia, a more muffled, pedalled approach would have magnified the music’s mysteriousness, but everywhere else Hough finds just the right sound to catch the music’s unruly emotions and its carefully crafted musical subtleties. Among this album’s many highlights are the amazing First Intermezzo of the third set, which comes across as a pure rush of energy, and the G minor Ballade, which takes on a massive granitic strength.