Every Stephen Hough album is an event because, unlike most pianists, the virtuosity and poetry of his playing is only the starting point of his art, not its conclusion.
Hough is a true polymath. Every issue is carefully planned, as here with the title, Vida Breve (Brief Life), which establishes the underpinning theme of the inevitability of death—that also being the name of Hough’s very accessible Piano Sonata No 4, also included here.
As well as a pianist of distinction and a composer of note, Hough is a much-published writer, so his descriptions of the pieces he plays always reward attention. As here, where he describes the opening track thus: ‘Bach’s Chaconne, apparently written in memory of his first wife, is here expanded by Busoni from the small wooden box of its original solo violin into a towering cathedral of sound.’ Beautifully done, and the playing is even better.
There is nothing mawkish about Vida Breve, nor is fun banished, because Hough always takes the greatest pleasure in amusing his listeners. He certainly does in the other Ferruccio Busoni piece, a fiendishly difficult set of variations on some of the best-known tunes from Bizet’s Carmen, which is often laugh-out-loud entertaining.
The longest piece here, Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata, is played with a lightness of touch and romantic feeling that makes it clear why Chopin himself wanted the Funeral March title banished.
Hough wants this album listened to at a single sitting, as if at a recital, so he even appends a couple of encores.
Arirang is a traditional melody regarded in its native Korea as akin to a national anthem. After a joyous two minutes, Hough addresses Gounod’s much-parodied and over-sentimentalised Ave Maria with memorable restraint.
Hough’s jaunty sense of humour is yet again revealed in his usual cover photo of a favourite hat. Not a man who takes himself too seriously, our Stephen. But all pianophiles should.