With this Stephen Hough Debussy recital Hyperion is competing with itself for it matches almost exactly a recent release from Steven Osborne. The good news (there’s no bad) is that both are a rich addition to this composer’s recorded catalogue. While Osborne plays Masques and ... D’un cahier d’esquisses, Hough offers La plus que lente in their place; otherwise the contents are the same if, of course, enjoying different approaches, and Roger Nichols’s booklet note, previously for Osborne, is amended for Hough.
What is particularly engaging about Hough’s readings is that he is not only at the top of his game as a musician, and with a technique that admirably serves his artistry, but that he comes across as so assured as to what he wants to do, not for a second fazed by the exigencies of setting something down for scrutiny (by the likes of me) and posterity, but that the sessions were so happy and relaxed, even though they were spread across time and two locations, for continuous listening sustains the illusion of a productive day spent in a hospitable venue with friends, producer Andrew Keener, recording engineer Simon Eadon and piano technician Peter Salisbury.
There is much to relish in Hough’s playing, not least (and allowing that Debussy was not a fan of the impressionism tag) some magical evocations, although the pianist can be clinical and even percussive when it suits, and when he is, it does; and if the listener were to be unaware of the pictorial titles every one of these pieces carries, whether or not gardens, the moon, pagodas, a shepherd, goldfish, snow, et al, come to mind, it scarcely matters in the company of such distinctive, beautiful and exhilarating music that feeds the imagination and senses so wondrously.
There is no need for a blow-by-blow account of this release’s contents, for each of the seventeen tracks is a highlight – nevertheless the allure of ‘Pagodes’ (Estampes) and the sensitivity of ‘Hommage à Rameau’ (Images I) are transporting, while the friskiness of ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ is a particular delight (so too the rest of Children’s Corner, as it is with Osborne), and the languor of La plus que lente, a late-night waltz, is captivating.
Although I have indicated a seamless quality to the entirety, maybe the Images are a little more luminous-sounding, but presence, clarity and tonal fidelity are exemplary throughout, so too a wide dynamic range, the end of L’isle joyeuse opening out gloriously, for example, to close the whole resplendently and uninhibitedly. It’s not a case of Stephen versus Steven; each is their own man and both have an honoured place on our shelves.