Malcolm Hayes
BBC Music Magazine
March 2021

‘Vida breve’ (life is short), the subtitle of Stephen Hough’s Piano Sonata No 4, is the theme explored throughout this album. The central statements are Chopin’s Second Sonata, with its ‘funeral march’ slow movement, and Liszt’s Funérailles—contemporaneous with Chopin’s death, but more likely commemorating the dead in the Hungarian uprising against the Habsburg Empire in the same year. There are also two Busoni transcriptions, of Bach’s D minor Violin Chaconne (maybe written in memory of the composer’s first wife) and themes from Bizet’s Carmen (another short-lived individual).

The sequence works well as a recital-like experience, and also as a vehicle for Hough’s comprehensive mastery of his art. His booklet introduction describes Busoni’s Bach transcription as ‘a towering cathedral of sound’, which indeed it is, and his playing impressively mirrors the immensity both of Bach’s conception and of Busoni’s tumultuous pianistic response. He brings the same monumental approach to the huge column-like pillars of sonority of Funérailles, following this with a super-virtuoso delivery of Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalité in which, says Hough, ‘we face the Devil himself’. The idiom of his own ‘Vida breve’ Sonata, with its cogent sweep and flawlessly written fugato sections, is intriguingly difficult to pin down—somewhere between Busoni and Albéniz, perhaps? Hough’s relatively severe way with Chopin’s Sonata, though appropriate to the programme’s overall conception, maybe restrains the music’s element of dreamy poetry a little too much, but any such reservation has to be marginal. And the two concluding encore-like numbers add a note of quiet consolation.