Just about everything about Stephen Hough’s Chopin Nocturne cycle seems ideal. His gorgeous and well-recorded sonority seduces in intimate moments, rising to the music’s dramatic climaxes with emotional force yet never losing clarity or luminosity. He applies rubato with the utmost discretion, taste, and proportion, while largely underlining the composer’s harmonic surprises through shifts of tone color and chord balances. The way in which the pianist floats soft cantabile legato lines often gives the illusion of more sustain pedal than is actually employed.
Telling examples of this occur in the agitated build-ups of Op 15 No 1 and Op 27 No 1, as well as in Op 62 No 1’s long chains of trills and Op 37 No 2’s feathery double notes. At the same time, Hough achieves a wider than usual scope of characterization by means of varied articulations and accentuations. In the F sharp Op 15 No 2 Nocturne, for example, the central section’s suavely dispatched right-hand figurations contrast to Hough’s more angular shaping of the left-hand accompaniment. Op 15 No 3’s melodic lines take sophisticated shape as they move over the bar lines at Hough’s convincingly brisk tempo. Unlike Jan Lisiecki’s sectionalized reading of Op 48 No 1, Hough’s fluent cohesion is all of a piece, and truly sounds like a performance.
To sum up, Hough consistently conveys a perfect balance of intelligence and instinct, as well as imagination without contrivance. In addition to the standard 21 Nocturnes (including the posthumously published C sharp minor and C minor pieces), Hough presents a piece in C sharp minor of anonymous authorship published in Russia under Chopin’s name, plus an additional performance of the famous E flat Op 9 No 2 Nocturne that incorporates authentic ornamented textual variants. Even in a catalog crowded with superb Chopin Nocturne cycles, Stephen Hough easily sets reference-worthy standards.