Be clear about one thing: this is not just another recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes. The roll-call of pianists who have recorded these much-loved pieces is long and prestigious, but in comparisons with a dozen of the best this new recording is immediately distinctive.
Stephen Hough turns 60 next week and this two-disc set will provide him with a fine memento of the occasion. Having explored Chopin’s Nocturnes in depth during lockdown, he made the recording in studio conditions at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Everything about it feels fresh-minted. Taking Chopin’s markings as his guide, Hough is swifter than almost anybody else, allowing the melodies to sing fluently as if they were arias from the composer’s favourite Bellini operas (Hough says as much in the booklet, though the point is already made unmistakably in his performances).
The big gain is poetry. Played intimately, as Chopin would have done in small salons, each Nocturne shimmers as though touched by the most subtle of moonbeams. The lovely Op 27 No 1 opens on to a dream world, misty, atmospheric, the pedalling adding a haze that makes one think, ‘Did Chopin really write that?’ (Yes, he did.)
Nobody else creates quite this magic. Of major pianists, Maria João Pires is the closest in feeling, Maurizio Pollini similar in the fluent speeds, though in his hands the music glints with Italianate light. Even the hallowed Rubinstein sounds a touch stiff-jointed by comparison. A memorable recording.