More and more frequently these days, in lieu of cut-and-dried, formulaically conceived piano recordings, CDs come along that present unusual works, interestingly juxtaposed and imaginatively played. With thoughtfully conceived programming gradually becoming less sparse, it’s easy to forget, for a good three decades Stephen Hough has recorded programmes that, beyond the quality of his execution, grab attention for their deeply personal point of view. Without question, he’s done yeoman service in encouraging us to revisit important, off-the-beaten-path repertoire, witness his beautifully prepared discs of Hummel (three of the sonatas for Hyperion in 2003, reviewed in December 2003, and two concertos for Chandos in 1986 CHAN8S07). More intriguing, perhaps, are those recordings, usually titled ‘albums’, ‘recitals’ or ‘collections’, where Hough combines the works of several composers to illustrate a programmatic concept. The ‘French Album’, reviewed in September 2012, is a good example. He placed his own transcriptions of Delibes and Massenet alongside original works by Fauré, Ravel, Alkan, Poulenc, Debussy and Chaminade, rounding them off with Cortot transcriptions of Bach and Liszt’s fantasy on an opera by Halévy. It’s an ingenious programme that Hough’s droll description as ‘a French dessert trolley’ modestly undervalues.
Less wide-ranging, though no less interesting, is his latest thematic CD, ‘In the Night’, where canonic works from the first half of the nineteenth century are presented alongside Hough’s own Second Piano Sonata, a work he introduced last season. Cynics may claim that, as a marketing strategy for the slightly necromaniacal classical crowd, sneaking a difficult contemporary nugget into a basket of chestnuts is a shrewd ploy. That begs the riposte that Hough’s music seems to be making its way nicely in any case, while the man himself is probably among the least cynical of musicians. Moreover, when composer and performer are united in the same individual, what’s not to like?
As composers are wont to do, Hough restricts most of his booklet note on the ‘notturno luminoso’ to technical matters. He does allow, however, that it is a piece ‘about a different kind of night and a different kind of light: the brightness of a brash city in the hours of darkness; the loneliness of pre-morning sleeplessness and the dull glow of the alarm clock’s unmoving hours; the irrational fears or the disturbing dreams which are only darkened by the harsh glare of a suspended, dusty light bulb.’ Cast in a double-function form of three movements in one, the Sonata unfolds during the course of 18 and a half minutes, with an immediately apparent structural logic and a harmonic vocabulary that conveys vivid emotional narrative. As one would expect from a pianist of Hough’s gifts, textures are imaginative, with plenty of excitement and variety. Interesting from the first hearing, it grows more so with repeated listening. Hough’s musical thinking has the same warmth and communicativeness as his performing persona, so that one looks forward to hearing more.
Hough has been reticent to stake out a claim as a Beethoven player, at least on record. To date his efforts have been mostly confined to the master’s chamber music, save for Sonata No 32, Op 111, recorded as part of his 2009 recital album (reviewed in April 2009). Make no mistake, the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata heard here is very good and deeply musical. Yet the collar-grabbing, in-your-face urgency and commitment that characterize some of the best Beethoven playing seems somehow missing. The two Chopin Nocturnes, Op 27, on the other hand, are ethereal and abundantly poetic.
Though he’s recorded some, I’ve not heard Hough play Schumann before. What a pleasure it is! His Carnaval has great warmth and gentleness, along with appropriate doses of high spirits and antic, even slapstick humour. Extremely original in concept, this interpretation is seasoned throughout with a unique tempo rubato that is both apt and uncannily subtle. I don’t think I’ve sat through another Carnaval that was quite this much fun. You should have a listen.