Stephen Hough's English Album
The very opening item‚ Rawsthorne’s four Bagatelles‚ instantly makes it clear that this latest recital disc from Stephen Hough has a different aim from his previous collections of charmers. Gritty and tough‚ in Hough’s hands sounding wonderfully pianistic‚ these miniatures are thoughtful and intense‚ balanced at the end of the disc by the final item‚ also by far the longest‚ Kenneth Leighton’s Study Variations. These do not make for easy listening either‚ but they inspire Hough to superb pianism over six sharply characterised pieces‚ at times echoing Bartók in their angry energy‚ at others full of fantasy‚ with the second a slow and concentrated piece full of harmonic clusters‚ underpinned by menacing belllike effects‚ and with the final Study a breathtaking virtuoso exercise.
In his notes Hough gives personal explanations for his choice of items‚ as for example that the Rawsthorne pieces were written for his muchloved piano teacher‚ Gordon Green‚ who had tears in his eyes when he heard Hough as a teenager playing them. What all these very varied pieces demonstrate‚ just as those on the earlier recital discs did‚ is Hough’s profound love of keyboard sound and textures‚ and his rare gift of bringing out the full tonal beauty. His own pieces‚ the two Valses énigmatiques‚ each based on his own initials linked to those of friends‚ both bear that out‚ the one with delicate textures‚ the other with Debussyan parallel chords. He also does a warmly sympathetic arrangement of a song he recorded earlier with the tenor Robert White on a Hyperion disc of ballads (2/96)‚ Bantock’s Song to the Seals‚ with echoes of the Hebridean folksongs collected by Marjorie KennedyFraser.
It is evidence‚ too‚ of Hough’s wizardry that he makes the Elgar piece‚ In Smyrna‚ sound so magical. In his hands it is like an improvisation – something he confirms in his note – with echoes of the lovely solo viola serenade in the overture‚ In the South‚ written in 1903 some two years before this piano piece and also with a Mediterranean inspiration. The four pieces by Stephen Reynolds‚ two with echoes of Delius‚ two of Fauré‚ are consciously relaxed exercises outside the composer’s normally more astringent idiom. The two pieces by Frank Bridge bring out his love of delicate keyboard textures‚ while the three York Bowen works are simple and songlike using an almost cabaretstyle of piano writing‚ very different from the three formidable chamber works recently issued on the Dutton label (3/02)‚ which also celebrate the work of this unfairly neglected composer. In all these pieces Hough’s magic is presented in full‚ clear Hyperion sound.