SCRIABIN; JANÁČEK Sonatas and Poems
Stephen Hough’s piano-playing always seems informed by a composer’s instincts and sensibilities, attributes immediately discernible in his new recording combining Scriabin with two major works of Janáček, a composer 18 years Scriabin’s senior, yet who outlived him by 13.
Out of this richly atmospheric performance of Book 1 of On an Overgrown Path, certain pieces emerge as almost cinematically graphic. One easily pictures eddies of autumn winds in ‘A blown-away leaf’ or hears the voices of children in ‘Come with us!’. The raw emotions of ‘Unutterable anguish!’ and the apprehension verging on fear of ‘The barn owl has not flown away’ are immediate and powerful. Within the scant 12 minutes of the Sonata 1.X.1905, a psychological drama of tragic import unfolds on what seems like an epic scale. The emotional nakedness and loving attention to detail recall the seminal Janáček recordings of Rudolf Firkušný.
The same probing, questing intelligence is brought to bear on the more conventionally virtuoso music of Scriabin. To music that all too often leaves one rudderless and gasping for air in wave after wave of opulently ambivalent harmony, Hough brings orientation and direction without sacrificing sensuality or mystical aura. He accomplishes this through an almost uncanny variety of touch, tone production and judicious pedalling. The result is a Fifth Sonata that, despite its audacious originality, suddenly seems not quite so distant from contemporaneous Debussy and Ravel. The irrepressible nervous energy animating the fast sections becomes, in the finale of the Fourth Sonata, both the means and the end. In lesser hands, Scriabin’s obsessive repetition of massive chords can seem like insensate piano abuse. Through shaping and dynamic gradation, Hough restores these characteristic figurations to their original shimmering vibrando effect, producing a sound at once musical and thrilling. Shape and direction are the operatives in Vers la flamme, creating an impact unlike any other recording I know.
Listening to dozens of new piano recordings each year, a sort of private rating system inevitably develops. For me, discs warranting the highest praise are those that persuasively introduce new music, that chart new interpretative territory for a work or that demonstrate something fresh and heretofore unrecognised in music long familiar. These are recordings that contribute significantly to common understanding and appreciation. Hough’s contribution in this release could scarcely be more generous.