Notes and Editorial Reviews
Barcarolle. Mazurkas: in f,
Polonaise-Fantasy. Nocturnes: in B,
Piano Sonata No. 3. Berceuse
Stephen Hough (pn)
HYPERION CDA 67764 (73:08)
This album is my second encounter with Stephen Hough playing Chopin. The first was his CD of the ballades and the scherzos. That recording was lovingly performed, though missing the last degree of flash. I have no such reservation about the current CD of Chopin’s later works. This is repertoire that plays to Hough’s strengths, particularly his intelligence and expressiveness. His playing here has a kindness that is very apt for the conflicting emotions of these pieces. The idea of presenting an album of Chopin’s later compositions across several genres is not new. Stephen Kovacevich did it on an LP in the 1970s. Part of the appeal of Hough’s program is that his selection of works and their order is beautifully shaped. I had no trouble listening to this CD three times in a row. Each time the interpretations grew in thoughtfulness and ardor.
To discuss the program in its given order, the opening Barcarolle is given a rich and songful rendition, with exquisite pedaling. Then come four mazurkas, all in minor keys. In keeping with their autumnal mood, Hough plays them very softly, sometimes seeming to just breathe upon the keys. His realization of the dance rhythms is very subtle. Op. 68/4, which is presumed to be Chopin’s last mazurka, seems highly wistful in Hough’s hands. The Polonaise-Fantasy is alternately grand and meditative. Even in its quieter moments, Hough brings out a majestic sensibility. He also never rushes the work’s virtuoso elements, unlike some other pianists. The two nocturnes are bathed in half lights. Often the melody is on the verge of breaking up, contributing to the music’s tension.
The performance of the Third Sonata represents a major statement of the work. It reminds me of Nelson Freire’s first recording of the piece, once available in the “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series. In the first movement, Hough has a leisurely interpretation of
, with his tempos allowing for clear articulation throughout. The appearances of the second subject are highly tender. The scherzo, which is never rushed, seems jewel-like. Dramatically, Hough begins the
third movement immediately following the scherzo. The introduction of its second subject is pure magic. Here is a real demonstration of keyboard poetry; you are completely unaware that Hough is playing a percussive instrument. In the finale, Hough builds up a full head of steam. This is formidable Chopin playing. To end his program, Hough chooses the Berceuse, offering a moment of reflection following the sonata. Its delicate right-hand tracery eventually fades into nothingness. One recognizes here a premonition of Satie.
This album presents a fascinating glimpse into the works of Chopin’s later years. The sound engineering is very good, just a little recessed. Hough offers a delightful program note on the relationship between Chopin, Mark Rothko, and the bowler hat. It goes some way to explaining the Magritte-like album cover. If this selection of works appeals to you, I don’t think you can go wrong with this CD.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
Stephen Hough’s Chopin is highly persuasive. It’s not heaven-storming, but nor is it cool. It manages to project this carefully chosen ‘late’ selection with thoughtful intelligence and with tonal allure. But, again, it’s not beauty for beauty’s sake - it’s art for art’s sake. There may be the occasional quibble over tempo decisions, or over a sense of under-projection, but these are localised decisions and in general one can listen knowing that Hough’s bearing is devoted wholly toward the music-making, that his is an agency of refined control.
I would not dissent if perhaps auditors found that some of the more rich early chordal passages in the
Barcarolle could be played more passionately. But we find as the music progresses that Hough ensures that the variousness of mood and metre and texture are well accounted for, that his tone is rich, that he knows when to hold back and when to allow a sense of flow to course through the music, to allow it to swim freely, unmediated by regularity. This is not to imply excessive freedom. Equally when one turns to the two selected Nocturnes one finds elegance of phrasing, evenness of trills, and a truly poetic spirit. Again, one might quibble with the initial tempo of the E major, but it does quicken, and the results are still laudable.
There are similar qualities audible in the
Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major. Unexaggerated and controlled, clear sighted, acute in his use (or abjuring) of the pedal, he again demonstrates that his is a view unchained by either convention or tradition. It is personal but central Chopin playing. He brings gentle wit to bear to the A minor Mazurka; charming little pauses, a bright ethos, like a glass held up to sunlight.
In the more sustained challenges of the B minor sonata he proves redoubtable. His measured
Maestoso, the glittering scherzo, the refulgent but not overblown lyricism of the
Largo all point to a performer of self contained assurance and communicative spirit. If one senses that there is an element in this music-making of projecting cautiously, then I think I would disagree. Hough’s aesthetic here is not toward the impulsive but it is toward impulse; he doesn’t embrace the volatile but he is alive; he doesn’t cultivate expressive latitude but does employ pervasive rubati; he is not unduly rhapsodic but he is lyrical. It’s, on its own terms, cogent, and logical - without being predictable or mathematical.
This is a fine recording, well engineered, and made at St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol. Hough has written his own booklet notes, including a whimsical explanation for the cover artwork. His playing is artful and sympathetic, avoiding excess and celebrating instead measured lyricism.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Featured Sound Samples
Mazurkas for Piano, op 67: No 4 in A minor
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