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Stephen Hough
In Recital 
Mendelssohn Variations Serieuses Op 54
Beethoven Sonata in C Minor No 32 Op 111
Weber - Invitation to the Dance Op 65
Chopin Waltz in C sharp minor Op 64 No 2
Chopin Waltz in A flat major Op 34 No 1
Saint-Saens ValseNonchalante Op 110
Chabrier Feuillet d'Album
Debussy La PlusQueLente
Liszt ValseObliee No 1
Liszt Mephisto Waltz No 1
Traditional (arranged Hough) Matilda's Waltz
Review By Phil Gold

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  Here is a most unusual recital the first half, major works featuring theme and variations, the second, an exploration of the waltz. The recital was recorded in the Henry Wood Hall in London in July, 2008. It took me some time to sort out the juxtaposition of Beethoven's last sonata with a rethink of Waltzing Matilda. But I think I have it now in three words: Hough, Steinway, Faulkner.

Stephen Hough, born in England in 1961 and now a holder of joint UK/Australian nationality, is a big name on the international concert stage, known not only for his pianism but also for his compositions. His repertoire is extensive with over 40 CD's to his credit, a good number of them prize winners.

The second star attraction here is his Steinway piano, bursting with dynamics and color. It is especially powerful in the deep bass registers, but maintains incisive clarity all the way up, and at every volume level.

The third star is the renowned recording engineer Tony Faulkner. Forty years in the business and numerous awards to his credit do not mean he sleepwalks through his recording sessions or imposes his sound on the artists he works with. Faulkner has preserved Hough's bold dynamics on this magnificent Steinway so we get to hear the recital up front and unadulterated. If this means it may be too much for some replay chains, that's the price you have to pay to allow maximum realism on superb equipment.

Let us dive in.

Mendelssohn's Serious Variations are extraordinary in their musical depth and the virtuoso demands they place on the performer. These demands are fully met in this performance so we need concern ourselves only with matters of interpretation. My long time favourite here is Perahia on an exceptional all Mendelssohn disc from 1984 [CBS MK37838]. These two pianists bring different qualities to their performances. For Perahia, Mendelssohn's beloved Bach is the guide. Fugal writing, chorales, long wondrously shaped lines are the order of the day, and the watchword is poetry. He moves from variation to variation in an organic manner replete with quixotic flourishes, culminating in a breathtaking finale. Hough's approach is bigger, more deliberate and highly articulated, as if the music were under a magnifying glass. His influence is Beethoven, majoring on power and robust masculinity. The whole work is so highly charged the finale is actually less exciting than Perahia's relative to the energy level of the work as a whole. Hough is clearly engaged in this music and pulls off some remarkable effects, including a prowling tiger. While both performances are spectacular, the edge must go to the new disc for the vastly better recording quality. Perahia's account is handicapped by some harsh steely recorded sound at high levels, a common problem for digital recordings of the era, and does not begin to compare in terms of deep bass clarity and power.

The major work on this disc, in length and significance, is the last Beethoven Sonata, Opus 111. Every great Beethoven pianist has pulled out all the stops for this profound and startlingly original composition. I was not expecting a touchstone performance to appear on an "In Recital" album, but I was wrong. Hough gives us a taught coherent version that surprises again and again. He takes major risks in ratcheting up the tension and dynamics early so that you are sure he cannot sustain the pace but succeeds at every turn. He does not have the poetry of Brendel or the polish of Pollini but he brings a strength and electricity to the music which is quite intoxicating. Again Faulkner gives us everything from a front row seat, so count this version as fully competitive in a crowded field.

The second half of the program is connected to the first through its serious minded pursuit of another musical form (the waltz) aided by magnificent recorded sound. The two Chopin Waltzes are the highlights for me. Brought up on the exalted standards of DinuLipatti and Artur Rubinstein, whose performances sound strikingly contemporary even today, I revelled in Hough's bold and even daring approach. He pulls the music around like Louis Armstrong but so firm is his mastery of the long line that he constantly surprises but never disappoints. He has a mastery over instrumental color and the strength of the left hand work together to turn aside all reservations. Chopin would have been thrilled.

For fans of the virtuoso pianist, the first Mephisto Waltz will be a highlight, with Hough making it all seem easy. Other standouts are Weber's Invitation to the Waltz and Saint-Saens' ValseNonchalante, both played with great style and panache. Hough has reworked Waltzing Matilda into a real waltz for his low key encore.

Splendid music, played for all its worth. Two thumbs up.

 

 

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