Stephen Hough’s album takes wing in an atmosphere of tension and sombreness. Built around his own Second Piano Sonata, subtitled ‘notturno luminoso’, its programme extends on either side through soundscapes of night by Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann. In this world with its permutations of turbulence, hauntings, nightmare and a more sinister than usual masked ball, anything seems possible except tranquil sleep.
Hough’s own Sonata proves the high point: its one extended movement is rich in textural variety and harmonic colour, full of massive chunks of sound like sculpted blocks of marble lit from within, and quirky, obsessive toccatas that whirl by like a runaway roundabout that keeps changing direction. It is unsettling, playful and original, if hinting now and then at Messiaen-like ideas; and hearing a masterful pianist performing his own work is a special experience in itself.
The emotional darkness appears diffuse through all the other works too. Countless details prove rewarding: the smoky pedal in the C sharp minor Nocturne’s transition, the free-flying melodic lines of ‘In der Nacht’, the veiled duskiness of the Moonlight Sonata's opening movement. On the other hand, the warmth and humour of Carnaval is rather subsumed; the demons are ever-present at the ballroom windows, and moments of charm or exultation are muted.