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Stephen Hough in Recital
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111 [24:47]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Invitation to the Dance
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2 [3:28]
Waltz in A flat, Op. 34 No. 1 [5:42]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Valse Nonchalante, Op. 110
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Feuillet d’Album
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Plus Que Lente
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Valse Oubliée No. 1, S 215 No. 1
Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S 514, “Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke” [11:21]
Trad. (arr. Stephen Hough)
Waltzing Matilda
Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. July 2008, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67686 [79:02]
Experience Classicsonline

On paper, this piano recital by one of our finest pianists looks intriguingly programmed: a first half focused on the idea of variations, with Mendelssohn’s marvellous Variations Sérieuses and Beethoven’s valedictory Piano Sonata No 32, followed by forty-three minutes of waltzes, from an assortment of different composers. Unfortunately, the concept was somewhat more difficult for me to enjoy in practice than it was on paper. Placement of the two ‘major’ works first makes the album somewhat top-heavy: after Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, just two of the last eight tracks pass the five-minute mark. Moreover, Hough’s keenness to find similarities between the seven waltz composers here represented is a recipe for listening fatigue, even though the concept is highly interesting from a musicological standpoint.

Does that make this an unsuccessful album? By no means! Even this, maybe the least inspired of Hough’s impressive line of recital albums, is better than most of the programmes pianists offer us these days. How refreshing it is, for example, to hear Beethoven’s final sonata without its two immediate predecessors. How delightful, too, to find a modern performer taking the Mendelssohn variations so seriously; they are enormously satisfying on disc and in the concert hall, but few artists of Hough’s stature seem to realize this.

Unfortunately the three bigger pieces on the program are the least successful, though still enjoyable. In the first movement of the Beethoven sonata, as in the Mendelssohn and most of all the Liszt Mephisto Waltz, Hough has a certain tendency to play with speed but without ferocity. Sviatoslav Richter, in a live recording from Leipzig, November 28, 1963, released on the Parnassus label, demonstrates how to drive the first movement of the Beethoven sonata with demonic intensity and heroic force. Hough is nearly as fast, but not nearly as intense. His slow movement fares much better-again, not as magical as Richter on modern piano or Paul Komen on pianoforte, but the comparison is unfair. This is still a lovely arietta, which both flows nicely and sings with plain-spoken beauty.

I quite like Hough’s gentle, poetic approach to the Mendelssohn variations, but his hesitation to make a loud or ugly sound becomes problematic in the Mephisto Waltz. This performance is simply too tame. Where is the devilishness? This is the first time I have listened to this work and been able to imagine someone (aside from the Devil) waltzing to it.

The miniatures work extremely well, however, as one would expect. Hough is actually at his most impressive in the two Chopin waltzes, where his playing is marvellously beautiful and possessive of a sort of deceptive simplicity which is most expressive. This is Chopin playing of the highest order, immaculate but unafraid, distinctly old-fashioned in its rubato and charm.

Hough has also, as is his custom, unearthed some truly impressive disc-mates in the Saint-Saëns, Chabrier and Debussy. If they sound of a piece, it is perhaps because the performer’s unifying instinct makes as convincing a case as possible that this music belongs together. They are, one and all, delights, and the Weber is played in a similar manner as well: lushly romantic and enticing, it teases us with the feeling of a secret being kept, like a perfumed invitation from a secret lover.

All that remains to be said is that Hyperion’s engineering is clear and honest, Hough’s piano sounds wonderful, and the presumably live audience maintains an admirable silence. If this repertoire interests you, or if you are feeling a little adventurous, do not hesitate to give this new recital a listen. It will not, perhaps, supplant your favorite readings of the Beethoven or Mendelssohn, and Hough’s Liszt Mephisto will find few admirers, but the Chopin and other waltzes are ravishingly played, and Stephen Hough remains one of the most interesting curators of little-known piano repertoire in our time. Hough’s liner-notes, by the way, demonstrate an eloquence with the written word to rival that at the keyboard, and his encore, his own transcription of the “Waltzing Matilda,” is arranged and performed with love.

Brian Reinhart 


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