Sonata in F minor Op.5
Four Ballades Op.10
Stephen Hough (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: March 2001
CD No: HYPERION
Duration: 59 minutes
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!)
I’m not sure that Brahms’s piano sonatas don’t 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 Perahia’s, whose recording is on Sony.
Not there is anything parochial about Stephen Hough’s rendition. There are pianists who stress the music’s heroics and soul a little more; and if Hough doesn’t necessarily quote from, say, Radu Lupu’s book of pianistic poetry (Decca) or sculpt with Zimerman’s chiselled splendour (DG, a recording I understand now withdrawn at the pianist’s request), he brings his own pertinently considered concern for direction and a compelling discretion. Hough’s is a wonderfully cultivated and structured reading, and he doesn’t excess incidental moments to upset Brahms’s long-term resolution, and he has the measure of the considerable technical demands.
The sonata’s 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 Hough’s Andante espressivo second movement, which is perfectly judged in tempo and phrase. Allowing that the movement is a tad too long, I’ve rarely heard it ’float’ like it does here, Hough’s 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 there’s nothing superficial or overtly demonstrative in Hough’s playing. There’s certainly a commanding call-to-attention at the sonata’s opening, and I love the way Hough places the staccato notes from 1’12” (and in the exposition repeat) as part of a cross-hatched design. The first movement’s coda is thrillingly cumulative – but how I wish Hough could have found a little more breadth in the sonata’s ultimate coda – and he relishes the glittering runs that signal the sonata’s close (from 5’44”, then 6’17”). I’m 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.
I’ve 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 0’54”. Nor would I be first in the queue to hear Brahms’s 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 Keener’s 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.