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 Recording of the Week  Stephen Hough's French Album

I’ll confess that when I listened to this disc ‘blind’, I was a couple of tracks in before I realised what it was: a big-boned, unabashedly Romantic account of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue BWV565 is a curious opener for a ‘French Album’! But Stephen Hough is a canny programmer as well as one of our finest pianists, and his ‘musical dessert trolley’ (as he describes the album in the booklet-note) encompasses works with a slight French accent as well as bona fide Gallic bonbons of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries.

Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

The programme is book-ended by a pair of transcriptions: it opens with Bach arranged by the great French pianist Alfred Cortot (with a helping hand from Hough himself, who made over fifty changes to his hero’s arrangement) and closes with a distinctly Hungarian twist on one of the great French grand operas (Liszt’s Halévy fantasy).

French repertoire hasn’t loomed large in Hough’s recording career to date (thus far he’s committed the Saint-Saëns concertos to disc, as well as Franck’s solo piano music), but what struck me on first hearing was the consistent clarity of his approach. In lesser hands a programme like this could so easily dissipate into a series of soft-focus washes of sound, but even in the most familiar pieces I found myself becoming aware of countermelodies and overarching phrases which had never before caught my attention.

The choice of instruments helps: both the Yamaha which is generally used for the earlier works and the Steinway that’s deployed for the later ones are pleasantly dry, throwing the splendidly boomy instrument which we hear in the first track into greater relief. (This was recorded back in 2009, more or less on a whim - Hough was recording the Tchaikovsky concertos and during a break began to play around with the Cortot/Bach, inspired by the French-organ sonorities he found in the instrument. He confessed in a recent radio interview that he persuaded Hyperion’s engineers to do a couple of takes in the break, just on the off-chance that it could be worked into a future project!)

Hough’s ‘dessert-trolley’ metaphor is apt indeed, but this selection of petit fours is varied enough to prevent sugar-rush: evergreens like Debussy’s 'Clair de lune' are interspersed with lesser-known gems from the likes of Chabrier and Chaminade. The themes of melancholy and dusk run loosely through the programme, and whilst an initial glance at the track-listing might suggest a surfeit of ennui, there are enough shades of grey in this twilit world to make for pleasurable listening in one sitting (compare Poulenc and Chabrier’s ‘Mélancolie’ and see if you don’t agree!)

Highlights? The programme works so beautifully as a whole that it’s almost invidious to single any out, but the fleet, scintillatingly-articulated account of Ravel’s 'Alborada del Gracioso' lingers in the memory (and had me digging out my copy of Hough’s Spanish Album of 2006!), whilst the Liszt fantasy on La Juive makes for a bravura finale. Himself a distinguished composer, Hough offers two transcriptions of his own, both with balletic connections - a deliciously insouciant Pizzicato from Delibes’s Sylvia and a oh-so-simple but breathtaking arrangement of Massenet’s song 'Crépuscule' (used in the ballet Manon).

It’s good, too, to have Alkan’s wonderfully weird ‘Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer’ (‘Song of the Madwoman on the Sea-Shore’), all dense subterranean rumblings and meandering snatches of melody. Hough recently revealed that he’d never performed any Alkan before the recording-session, but on this showing he’d make a wonderful advocate for this eccentric and still-neglected composer.

Plenty to enjoy in this classy assortment of amuse-bouches, then – bon appetit!

Stephen Hough's French Album

Stephen Hough (piano)

Available Format: CD