It would be rash, and indeed irresponsible, to claim this recording as the best that Stephen Hough has ever made, or the best version of Brahms’ late piano pieces ever released. Yet Hough’s complete technical mastery, fresh musical insights, and deep stylistic sympathy constantly yield revelatory results.
Op 116 No 1’s thick and stormy repeated chords gain power and urgency through Hough’s spare pedaling and absolute precision of touch. By discreetly applying minuscule dabs of rubato, both the A minor Op 116 No 2 and B minor Op 119 No 1 Intermezzi sound both spacious and animated at the same time. Op 116 No 5’s short two-chord phrases have a rare specificity to their shaping. While the concluding D minor Capriccio’s coda goes like the wind, the bushels of notes swirl on a leash, voiced to perfection.
Hough feels Op 117 No 1’s gentle triple meter as one beat to the bar, saving introspection for the central minor-key episode. The myriad ways in which Hough shades No 2’s main motive (a tiny accent here, a slight hold there) never draw attention to themselves. Yes, the A major Op 118 No 2 Intermezzo may strike some listeners (and pianists) as a bit fast, but notice Hough’s sense of spacing, his ability to give the illusion of air in between the notes, and also how his phrases speak as they move over the bar lines. Is it sophisticated simplicity or simple sophistication?
Unlike way too many pianists who pound out the G minor Ballade Op 119 No 3, Hough generates the supplest textural interplay between the treble melody and the ascending chordal writing. A similar observation can be made about the F minor No 4 Intermezzo. While most pianists adapt a lyrical and genial point of view for Op 119 No 4’s central A-flat major episode, Hough favors a steady tempo, and imparts a dry sting to the arpeggiated accompanying chords underneath an unusually full-throated legato melody line. As a result, the textural contrast to the main theme’s so-called ‘power chords’ catches you by surprise. Wilhelm Kempff did something similar in his early 1960s stereo recording, but to squarer, less bracing effect.
I’m not about to replace my Emanuel Ax, Jonathan Plowright, and Arcadi Volodos late Brahms interpretations, of course, nor will I jettison distinctive single-disc editions of Op 116, Op 117, Op 118, and Op 119 from Hakon Austbo or Lars Vogt (the latter is unfortunately ‘out-of-print’). But if you want all of Brahms’ late piano pieces together, Stephen Hough crowns the list. Hyperion’s engineering captures the sonorous impact of Hough’s Yamaha grand from bottom to top, thereby clinching this release’s reference status.