CD No: HYPERION CDA67237 Duration: 59 minutes Reviewed: March 2001
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
The large-scale F minor Sonata completed, his third such work in five opus numbers, Brahms, aged just twenty, abandoned writing sonatas for his instrument. He would then compose the Ballades (those on this CD), a set of Waltzes, Hungarian Dances (four hands) and, throughout his life, numerous short pieces. Larger-scale works for piano solo would be in variation form, on themes from Handel, Paganini and others. (There are also two rather imposing concertos, of course!)
Im not sure that Brahmss piano sonatas dont all have their questionable aspects, albeit all are splendid pieces written by a young man of huge talent and personality. The one in F minor certainly has magnificent music in it and has attracted an array of pianists and many recordings.
Hough extends the list of British exponents of this sonata, joining, among others, Solomon (Testament) and Clifford Curzon (Decca) and he is very much in their company. Among his contemporaries, I would suggest Hough inhabits a world not dissimilar to Murray Perahias, whose recording is on Sony.
Not there is anything parochial about Stephen Houghs rendition. There are pianists who stress the musics heroics and soul a little more; and if Hough doesnt necessarily quote from, say, Radu Lupus book of pianistic poetry (Decca) or sculpt with Zimermans chiselled splendour (DG, a recording I understand now withdrawn at the pianists request), he brings his own pertinently considered concern for direction and a compelling discretion. Houghs is a wonderfully cultivated and structured reading, and he doesnt excess incidental moments to upset Brahmss long-term resolution, and he has the measure of the considerable technical demands.
The sonatas in five movements. Hough brings a swagger to the propulsive outer sections of the pivotal scherzo; the mellifluous trio is wonderfully sung, Hough finding a velvet touch and beguiling half-tones that report exceptional sensitivity. Exceptional too is Houghs Andante espressivo second movement, which is perfectly judged in tempo and phrase. Allowing that the movement is a tad too long, Ive rarely heard it float like it does here, Houghs quiet playing is remarkable not only for the hushed dynamics but also in its personal declaration every note hangs in the air with meaning.
The fourth movement, Intermezzo, is an atmospheric retrospective of the second in which Hough imitates muffled drums to dramatic effect - this is a sonata with literary connections and the outer movements have all their bravura intact, but theres nothing superficial or overtly demonstrative in Houghs playing. Theres certainly a commanding call-to-attention at the sonatas opening, and I love the way Hough places the staccato notes from 112 (and in the exposition repeat) as part of a cross-hatched design. The first movements coda is thrillingly cumulative but how I wish Hough could have found a little more breadth in the sonatas ultimate coda and he relishes the glittering runs that signal the sonatas close (from 544, then 617). Im always reminded here of Saint-Saens in etude-mode (delicious!): this is Brahms the uninhibited teenager parading his wares, to which Hough brings sparkling wit and spontaneity.
Ive never been particularly convinced by the way that Brahms begins this finale, but Hough suggests these opening bars are exploratory and ever-evolving; as such he holds the attention until he dissolves magically into a blissful melody at 054. Nor would I be first in the queue to hear Brahmss Ballades too often; Hough though avoids longeurs by choosing rippling speeds and vividly suggesting an underlying narrative (the first Ballade has another literary source "Edward").
Blessed with Andrew Keeners top-notch production values and a recording that is immediate and tonally faithful, Hough lets the music speak for itself, which it does with a deeply satisfying mix of intellect, heart, virtuosity and naturalness; add to this a wealth of colours and refined dynamics that speak volumes and the result is a musical triumph. But then Stephen Hough is 100-percent musician.