Stephen Hough's French Album

Main-course Poulenc and Fauré among ‘French’ treats

Author: 
Jeremy Nicholas

Stephen Hough's French Album

  • Toccata and Fugue
  • Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, Arioso
  • (13) Nocturnes, No. 6 in D flat, Op. 63 (1894)
  • (8) Pièces brèves, Improvisation
  • (5) Impromptus, No. 5 in F sharp minor, Op. 102 (1909)
  • (13) Barcarolles, F sharp minor, Op. 66 (1894)
  • Alborada del gracioso
  • (La) Crépuscule
  • (10) Pièces pittoresques, Mélancolie
  • Mélancolie
  • (8) Nocturnes, No. 4 in C minor
  • (15) Improvisations, No. 8 in A minor
  • (6) Etudes de concert, Automne
  • (25) Préludes, No. 8, La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer, Ar
  • Suite bergamasque, Clair de lune
  • Sylvia, Pizzicati
  • Réminiscences de La juive - Fantaisie brillante

Eh bien, voici un disque vraiment délicieux! Stephen Hough describes this album as ‘a sort of musical dessert trolley’. Come, come. Too modest. There may be generous helpings of bonbons and soufflés but it all amounts to a substantial gourmet feast of masterly pianism. Just looking at the menu inspires an anticipatory smile, beginning mischievously with a meaty hors d’oeuvre of German music arranged by the great Franco-Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot. This dips in and out of the more familiar arrangements of BWV565 by Busoni and Grainger in the course of making a more persuasive pianistic transformation than either. Hough opts for Cortot’s alternative final bars, ending on a refulgent D major chord. It was recorded in Minneapolis in 2009 and the remaining 16 items come from two sessions, a year apart, in the Wyastone concert hall, half of them from 2010 and played on a Yamaha, the others from 2011 on a Steinway. Only the keener ears will detect any tonal or acoustic discrepancies.

Central to the disc are the works by Fauré and Poulenc, heard to their best advantage when programmed in this way, hand-picked and set beside short works by Massenet and Chabrier. There are some great performances here. Hough can be too coolly objective at times but in this repertoire, perhaps paradoxically, the expressive simplicity of his playing can make your eyes burn. In Clair de lune and Chaminade’s once ubiquitous Automne, now rarely heard, Hough conjures up a heart-catching melancholy that put me in mind of Cherkassy. I can’t offer higher praise. If anyone wants to hear how to make a piano sing, they should listen to these and the Arioso from BWV1056 (another Bach-Cortot item). He ends with Liszt’s jejune, ferociously difficult Fantasy on themes from La Juive, surely one of his most vainglorious effusions, incorporating a few subtle Houghian nips and tucks. Excellent booklet. Fine recording. De plus, s’il vous plaît!

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