Greg Keane
Limelight, Australia
June 2022

Perhaps these two Schubert Sonatas could be described as—consciously or otherwise—un-virtuosic. The A Major Sonata, D664, could certainly in Churchillian terms be described as ‘the end of the beginning’ of his early works. Wilfrid Mellers described it as ‘a young man’s dream of his youth. In the mostly dreamy opening Allegro, Stephen Hough doesn’t shy away from the darker passages, like the development section’s troubled octaves. Still, his reading of the opening movement is a joyous exploratory journey through a mainly idyllic world, one to be set beside Richter’s sublime performance from the 1960s. This is ‘smiling through tears’ at times as Hough weaves his way exquisitely through a tapestry of nuanced emotions.

Schumann, always an acute and astute critic of Schubert, described the G Major Sonata, D894, as Schubert’s ‘most perfect work, both in form and substance’. Perhaps it was the dreamy, leisurely serenity of the first movement, interrupted only by a few turbulent moments in the development section, that inspired the publisher to give this work the confusing title, ‘Fantasy or Sonata.’ All four movements end softly. As with other late sonatas, the tempo indication before the opening movement is molto moderato, here expanded into molto moderato e cantabile, as if to alert us to the cornucopia of melody in store. The ambience Hough creates is tender and truly celestial, even the hesitations sing and there is something almost improvisatory about it. Listen to the build-up in the exposition and then the ecstatic release and the way Hough embroiders the first subject before its echoes round off the exposition. The repeat is fortuitously observed: you can never have too much of music like this.

In the Andante second movement, he perfectly calibrates the transition of the assuaging D Major opening into the B Minor/D Minor episodes, avoiding the temptation to depict them as inchoate cries of despair. After the ‘Viennese’ Menuetto, the finale dances through another myriad of moods with Hough making the final notes a loving valedictory to the movement’s opening motif. Schumann was spot on!

This CD catapults Hough into the stratosphere of contemporary Schubert performers: phrasing and dynamics are scrupulously but unobtrusively observed and the sound from the Henry Wood Hall London (April 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to take hold) is warm and vivid. A Schubert CD for the ages.

Limelight, Australia