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Stephen Hough
The French Album
Music by Bach (arr. Alfred Cortot), Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Jules Massenet (arr. Hough), Emmanuel Chabrier, Francis Poulenc, Cecile Chaminade, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Claude Debussy, Leo Delibes, and Franz Liszt
Stephen Hough (piano)

Review By Max Westler


  Those familiar with Stephen Hough's work know to expect the unexpected. So they won't be surprised that his survey of French keyboard music begins not with Couperin, but with Bach's mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor (as arranged by Alfred Cortot), and ends not with Messiaen, but with a Liszt "reminiscence" that's about as French as a knockwurst. Hough's selections are characteristically individual, eclectic, and revelatory. Which is to say, this program is pretty much a "hodge-podge." You pays your money, and you takes what you gets. If there is an organizing principle here, it is a love of contrast: familiar works are set beside more obscure repertory; lyric pieces alternate with more dramatic ones.

So the famous, tumultuous Toccata and Fugue is followed by the utter simplicity and directness of the much less familiar Arioso from the same composer's Fifth Keyboard Concerto. Next Hough gives us four selections from Gabriel Faure that highlight the variety and richness of that composer's writing for piano, a major part of his oeuvre. The Nocturne no. 6 in D flat major suggests Chopin in its dramatic mood-swings; the Improvisation in C sharp minor is as delicate and nuanced as the Impromptu is full of giddy momentum and wit. The Barcarolle that concludes the set is full of restless, unresolved yearning; a complex tone poem in just over five minutes. By way of contrast, Ravel's Alborada del gracioso is given a brilliant, extroverted performance that is both atmospheric and full of play. Massanet's Crepuscule and Chabrier's Melancholie are jewel-like miniatures that deserve to be better known. The same could be said for Francis Poulenc's piano music, which has taken a back seat to his more often performed and better known orchestral and chamber works. Hough makes a strong case for Poulenc's solo piano music with superb, compelling performances of three pieces (Melancolie, Nocturne No. 4, and the Improvisation No, 8) that emphasize Poulenc's debt to his predecessors (Faure and Chabrier), and his cheeky insouciance.

Cecile Chaminade and Charles-Valentin Alkan are probably the two most obscure composers represented here. Chaminade, a woman pianist and composer well-known during her lifetime (Bizet called her his "little Mozart"), confined herself to writing shorter works largely forgotten today. But if the haunting, ravishing Automne, op. 35 is in any way typical of her output, then I would certainly love to hear more. For me this was one of the happiest surprises of the entire program. Alkan's hermetic style is well represented by the 8th of his 25 Preludes, "La Chanson de lafolle au bord de la mer." In its nervous insistence, this "Song of a Mad Woman by the Seashore" is genuinely dark and unsettling. So what better work to follow it than Debussy's ethereal, pacific "Clair de lune"? Here Hough's performance is understated and luminous, and makes this overly familiar piece sound newly minted. Some pianists might have milked Leo Delibes' instantly recognizable Pizzicatifor laughs, but Hough (in his own arrangement) plays it straight, and thereby breathes new life into what might have been a cliché. Finally, there's the Liszt: Reminiscences de ‘La Juive:' Fantasiebrillantesur des motifs de l'opera de Halevy."  What can I say? It's far from top drawer Liszt, doesn't come close to his paraphrases of Rigoletto or Don Juan. But that doesn't stop Hough from playing it as if it were great music, and his brilliant, breathtaking, daredevil performance almost convinces me that it is.

For more than 30 years now, Stephen Hough has been one of our most consistent, dazzling, and adventurous artists. A true Renaissance man, Hough was honored with a MacArthur "Genius" award as much for his achievements as a scholar and educator as for his many brilliant recordings. Those who want to experience Hough's wit and intelligence directly are referred to his always entertaining and informative blog. For all that, I think the most important thing to note about Hough is that throughout his long career the man has remained a true Romantic at heart. Though his repertory is wide-ranging, it's mostly dead-centered in the mid-19th Century, and includes the usual suspects (Chopin, Liszt, Schumann) as well as more exotic fare (concertos by Scharwenka and Sauer). I have to confess that at some point I stopped being an objective critic of Hough's playing and became a fan. If you want to know why, I would suggest that you purchase this recording. A while ago I reviewed a program of encore pieces by Yuja Wang, and complained that the hors d'oeuvres she served up didn't make for a complete meal. That's certainly not the case here. What Hough gives us is more like a banquet. He invests each of these pieces with vibrant colors and emotional commitment, and the program as a whole is both rich and varied. To these ears, no company produces a more realistic piano sound than Hyperion, and this recording is well up to its high standard. In all respects, then, this disc is highly recommended.





Recording Quality: 
















































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