'On this recording', writes Stephen Hough, 'I wanted to explore some pieces that have [the theme of death] as part of their identity or inspiration.' And so, in this marvellous recital, Hough does, yes, adumbrate the skull beneath the skin in interpretations, of solo piano works well- and lesser-known, that are as forensically conceived as they are flamboyantly executed.
But this is also the pianist-composer as warrior-poet, leaping into the fray to wrestle his ancestors from Death’s clutches. Bach, Busoni, Liszt, Chopin, Gounod live again through Hough. He in turn lives through their music. One day, future pianists will likewise resurrect Hough. And so it continues. Death, thou shalt die, or perhaps more realistically, ars longa, vita brevis.
Thankfully, however, Hough is still very much with us. And those who have had the pleasure of surveying his extensive catalogue, of hearing his live performances, of savouring his original compositions, have the right to expect the pleasure of his company for many more years to come.
It is in the nature of artists to meditate on mortality, whether they be melancholic or no. If these musings are musical, all the better. Not that any of these works are especially morbid. As Hough reminds us, 'in the world of the arts … death has always been a central subject resulting in the most exalted and inexhaustible expression'.
Bach’s original Chaconne for Solo Violin may have been 'written in memory of his first wife'. The funereal might permeate aspects of Chopin’s Funeral Sonata and Liszt’s Funérailles, while the latter’s Bagatelle sans Tonalite, one of the Mephisto Waltzes, certainly conjures up infernal visions. Busoni’s lavish Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen evokes the tragic denouement of Bizet’s opera. Hough’s lapidary Piano Sonata No 4, Vida Breve, undoubtedly confronts the shortness of our time here on earth.
But this music is so full of gusto, of passion, of a lust for life that it is nearly impossible to think of death. Especially in performances as persuasive, as rhetorically potent—as alive—as these. The Bach-Busoni Chaconne, with which Hough opens his recital, is particularly fine: orchestrally conceived yet with passages that so marvellously reconcile the sonorous majesty and the profound intimacy of this work that—god forbid we use the word 'definitive' here—you could throw every other recording out the window.
As for Hough’s sonata: it is always a treat—too rare!—to hear a composer perform his or her own work. And is an event when the music and the playing combined are so accomplished, so insightful … so simply beautiful. The extremes of register and the Bachian figurations and fugal elements, bring to mind respectively a simple, binary heaven-and-earth spaciousness and an Erlkönig-like pursuit—though in this case, reversable.
On musical scores there can sometimes be found a marking, morendo ('dying'), an indication that the sound must die away. Hough facilitates this on a recital level by finishing with two gentle, meditative encores: his arrangements of the Korean folk song Arirang and Gounod’s Méditation sur le Premier Prelude de Piano de JS Bach, Ave Maria.
Full of grace, indeed.