Performance: ***** (out of 5) / Sound: ***** (out of 5) 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 aRead more 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.
– BBC Music Magazine
Stephen Hough’s penchant for intelligent thematic programming once again manifests itself throughout “In the Night”. Ironically, the music’s dark subtexts often benefit from the pianist’s interpretive “illumination”. The opening selection, “In der Nacht” from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op. 12, is a case in point. Hough not only controls the rolling, agitated left-hand accompaniment with no apparent effort, but also gives shape to the implicit stepwise bass lines that most other pianists ignore.
At first the Beethoven “Moonlight” sonata Adagio sostenuto appears to be uniformly muted, yet Hough spices the texture with a few strategically placed accents and caesuras. By contrast, the pianist’s sharply drawn dynamic contrasts and linear awareness in the brief Allegretto project the composer’s part writing as if played by a tightly knit string quartet. Hough may undersell the finale’s rough and tumble agitato qualities, yet his rock-solid rhythmic momentum and vivid textural definition compensate.
If anything, the two Chopin Op. 27 Nocturnes are more rarified, pianistically speaking. In No. 1, Hough’s steady yet sophisticated parsing of the left hand’s arpeggiated accompaniment and hauntingly disembodied right-hand melody seem to emanate from two different instruments. Hough’s brisk yet flexible tempo for No. 2, together with his floating, weightless tone and canny accentuations, help to liberate the music from the barlines.
The subtitle of Hough’s Piano Sonata No. 2 “notturno luminoso” refers to the brashness of a busy city at night. Hough’s piano writing always is idiomatic, fluent, and assured, even if the musical content tends to reveal more of what’s on the composer’s piano rack than in his innermost soul. For example, the clangorous opening chords combine Copland’s declamation and Messiaen’s clotted harmony. Arpeggiated passages that start in the extreme registers and work their way toward the middle of the keyboard contain polytonal tinges that could pass for York Bowen or early Sorabji. There’s also some fake Rachmaninov for good measure.
However, around the seven-minute mark, there’s a fascinating section that features jagged jabbing and bold figurations, mostly on the white keys. It says exactly what it means to say. Moments like these indicate that Hough is a real composer, just not all of the time. While I understand and respect the Second sonata’s ambitions, I find Hough’s First sonata (available on BIS) to be more concise and original.
Schumann’s Carnaval, of course, gushes originality from every pore, and the best performances revel in the work’s extreme mood shifts and varied cast of characters. Hough tends to underplay these characteristics. His suave Préambule misses Nelson Freire’s sense of abandon and giddiness, while Papillons and Reconnaissance are relatively plodding and earthbound next to Marc-André Hamelin’s joyfully brisk readings.
In the portrait of Chopin, Hough follows the Clara Schumann “tradition” by playing the repeat softer and more lyrically, sidestepping the composer’s Agitato request. But there are splendid moments too. In Lettres Dansantes, Hough’s additional legato articulations cast an interesting, almost offhanded spin on music that is often played in a light and detached manner. And by the time the Marche Des Davidsbündler Contre Les Philistins comes around, Hough has loosened up enough to channel a dead pianist or two.
Harriet Smith’s informative and superbly written annotations are a plus, not to mention Hough’s helpful guide to his Second sonata. But the reverberant sonics lack midrange definition and focus, in contrast to the warm and ample engineering that typifies many Hyperion piano releases.
-- Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Interested parties are encouraged to readJune 11, 2014By William C S. (Thousand Oaks, CA)See All My Reviews"The Gramphone's less than enthusiastic review about this recording, the quality of the recorded sound and the value of the disc. I feel Mr. Hough is a gifted musician and composer but I'm not convinced that the competitor review sees the shortcomings of this disc as acutely as does The Gramophone. I'm going to act neutrally here and give it a '3' only to be reasonable about a disc which has significant aural shortcomings. I think interested parties should search out The Gramophone's review for a critical analysis which I believe to be valid; it is in the June, 2014 Gramophone which was just delivered stateside to subscribers."Report Abuse