John Quinn
MusicWeb International
February 2020

Some time ago I reviewed the series of discs on which Barry Douglas presented the complete solo piano works by Brahms. Much though I admired the Douglas recordings, I found it somewhat frustrating that the sets of pieces that Brahms published were split; individual pieces were spread across more than one disc. Here, Stephen Hough proposes a much more satisfactory solution, presenting each of Brahms’ last four sets of piano pieces complete.

In a nice little introductory note, Hough quotes a very introspective friend of his whose view of these pieces was: ‘They are so sad, so lonely’. That’s one way of looking at these four late collections of pieces and, to be sure, many of them are suffused with melancholy but Hough himself adopts a rather more nuanced stance, suggesting that Brahms composed these pieces as private ruminations. ‘[A]s the nineteenth century and his life begin to close down, the bearded pianist sits at the piano alone. These short masterpieces are some release, some exploration, some passing of time as the light fades and the final cigar is extinguished.’ That nuanced view is, unsurprisingly, carried over into his playing of the music.

The seven Fantasies, Op 116 open with a ‘Capriccio’ which is turbulent and driving in character. Hough projects the music strongly, the rhythms full of life. The gentle melancholy of the following ‘Intermezzo’ offers a rewarding contrast. Here, I love the half-lights in Hough’s playing; his reading is refined and thoughtful. In his notes Misha Donat points out that Brahms initially called the fourth piece a nocturne—he eventually settled on ‘Intermezzo’. Hough’s playing of it is poised and reflective, the music’s poetry beautifully brought out. The last of the seven pieces, another ‘Capriccio’, has tempestuous outer sections and the music is consistently full of nervous energy, even in the less agitated middle section. Hough’s performances of all seven pieces are excellent.

Brahms once referred to the three pieces that comprise Op 117 as ‘the cradle songs of my grief’. The first is a lullaby but Stephen Hough doesn’t take the music too slowly, which might risk sentimentality. His pacing of this tenderly sorrowful little piece seems just right to me. In the second piece I greatly admire the crepuscular shadings that Hough draws from his Yamaha piano. The third piece is impeccably and thoughtfully shaded. The pianism here is as subtle as you could wish for.

Six pieces comprise Op 118. The second, an ‘Intermezzo’, is gentle and lovely. As in the first of the Op 117 pieces, Hough is not too lingering in his approach to the outer sections. His rubato is wholly idiomatic. Many people, myself included, would list this among their favourite solo piano pieces by Brahms; it’s beautifully done here. Hough is excellent in the passionate outer sections of the ‘Ballade’ and equally convincing in the warm central section. The set concludes with a deeply introspective ‘Intermezzo’ in the key of E flat minor. I love the intimacy of Hough’s playing in the outer sections and also his forthright way with the agitated music in the centre of the piece. Is it fanciful, I wonder, to hear a trace of the ‘Dies irae’ in the principal melodic idea of the outer sections?

The first piece of Op 119, an ‘Intermezzo’, is suffused with melancholy. Indeed, Misha Donat emphasises the point by quoting in his notes from an 1893 letter from Brahms to Clara Schumann in which the composer comments specifically on the melancholic character of the music. Stephen Hough captures fully the spirit of the music. In the second piece the agitated outer sections contrast with a warm middle section and in that episode, I greatly admired the flowing lyricism of Hough’s playing. The set concludes with a ‘Rhapsodie’ which has a big, confident opening and an unsettled central section. Hough’s account of the piece is dramatic and he succeeds in bringing out all the contrasts, dynamic and emotional, in the music.

I haven’t made specific reference to the performance of every one of the twenty pieces in this collection but I can assure readers that every single one of these late works receives an excellent and insightful performance. These piano pieces are as fine as they are concise and I found Stephen Hough completely convincing throughout his traversal of them. He seems to me to have captured the essence of every piece and his playing evidences great musical integrity and thoughtfulness.

The recordings were made in two separate locations but the same engineer, David Hinitt, was at the controls for all the sessions. He’s done a first-rate job; the sound of the Yamaha CFX piano comes over very well indeed. Misha Donat contributes a valuable set of notes.

This is a top-class survey of Brahms’ last compositions for solo piano.