Classical CD Reviews

Stephen Hough’s French Album = Works of BACH, FAURE, RAVEL, MASSENET, POULENC, ALKAN, DEBUSSY, DELIBES Etc. – Hyperion

Wit, style, and Gallic elegance combine for Stephen Hough’s eclectic approach to the French taste as conceived in a variety of bravura musical fashions.

Published on September 8, 2012

Stephen Hough’s French Album = Works of BACH, FAURE, RAVEL, MASSENET, POULENC, ALKAN, DEBUSSY, DELIBES Etc. – Hyperion

Stephen Hough’s French Album = BACH: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (arr. Cortot and Hough); Arioso from Klavier Concerto no. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056 (arr. Cortot); FAURE: Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63; Improvisation in C-sharp Minor, Op. 84, No. 5; Impromptu No. 5 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 102; Barcarolle No. 5 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 66; RAVEL: Alborada del gracioso; MASSENET: Crepuscule (arr. Hough); CHABRIER: Melancolie; POULENC: Melancolie; Nocturne No. 4 in C Minor “Bal fantome”; Improvisation No. 8 in A Minor; CHAMINADE: Automne, Op. 35, No. 2; ALKAN: La chanson de al folle au bord de la mer, Op. 31, No. 8; DEBUSSY: Clair de lune; DELIBES: Pizzicati (arr. Hough); LISZT: Reminiscences de la “La juive”: Fantasie brillante sur des motifs de l’opera de Halevy – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion CDA67890, 78:35 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Recorded at three separate session (6 June 2009; 19-20 October 2010; 23-24 May 2011) and on two distinct instruments (Yamaha and Steinway), the music presented by Stephen Hough comes to us as “a sort of musical dessert trolley.” It becomes immediately apparent that Hough harbors his own notions of “French,” since he includes Swiss keyboard legend Alfred Cortot’s version of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor which rather sparkles than thunders after the old classic horror-film versions at the organ with the likes of Fredric March or Boris Karloff. The pearls of the Arioso from the F Minor Concerto flow seamlessly, perhaps too briefly for some tastes.

The group of Faure pieces set Hough as a fine exponent of this most original of Gallic temperaments, whose modal harmonies and refined melodic sensibility shine and haunt at once. If the plastic arpeggios of the Nocturne fail to enthrall us, then the luscious syncopations of the Fifth Barcarolle should beguile; and then the 1901 Improvisation offers yet another facet in the composer’s audacious imagination, a kind of test-piece for competition bravura. Faure imitates aspects of Debussy in the F-sharp Minor Impromptu (1909), in which whole tones proceed in liquid motion. Rarely has the keyboard salon been so ravishingly courted by angular and erotic sonorities that flow with facility and poise. The whiplash and pungent Alborada del gracioso, No. 4 from the 1905 Miroirs, has had equally deft proponents in Lipatti and Katchen, and Hough’s version, too, invokes diaphanously strummed guitars and jubilantly festival Spanish colors.

Hough explores a “twilight” sensibility by way of Massenet, a lovely nocturne that strums and sings alluringly alla musette. Chabrier and Poulenc assume the “melancholy” humor, the former in laconic drooping figures; Poulenc indulges the sentiment at length in romantic arpeggios, a glittery nocturne with an ardent, middle-dialogue section rife with aerial impulses. Poulenc’s Nocturne No. 4 sounds like a parody of Chopin’s A Major Prelude, here set in the relative minor as a series of sly variations. The 1934 Improvisation in A Minor imitates angularities taken from Prokofiev, witty and impulsive. Chaminade’s concert etude Automne charms by its gentle gift for sustained melody. The music of Charles-Valentin Alkan always generates a macabre excitement of its own, and his 1847 Prelude No. 8 from Op. 31, “The Song of a Mad Woman by the Seashore,” lets Hough indulge in a series of grumbling ostinati and stunted melodic kernels whose manic spurts of energy and prolonged silences well prefigure Liszt’s late style.  Few French works could be so “predictable” in a program as Debussy’s 1890 Clair de lune, but Hough manages to infuse in it a mysterious delicacy which refreshes our faith in its eternal seductive powers. Hough arranges the Pizzicati from Delibes’ Sylvia ballet, a divertissement to which Hough adds spicy roulades. Liszt arranged melodies from Halevy’s 1835 opera La Juive (Acts III and V) so that his keyboard would flash its eyes and the bass part would provide the motif for many a damsel in distress tied to a train track. The galloping chromatics and brilliant octave work turn the opera into the kind of kitchen-sink effects that would give even Godowsky runs for his money!

—Gary Lemco




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