Stephen Hough has always concocted thoughtful, inventive and often very exploratory recital programmes and that has been reflected in his many thematically linked recordings. The national albums—France, Spain and England—the encore-style piano albums, In der Nacht (CDA67996) which visited the nocturnal world, and even his Mozart recital (CDA67598) which ventures beyond Mozart into other composer's responses to his music. Hough himself is one of those composers and he makes an appearance on all of the above as a composer as well as pianist.
Now he turns his attention to the greatest mystery of all—Death. Often a subject to be avoided but one which nonetheless inspired not just composers but countless artists to create some of their finest work. Be that as it may the impression that I come away with after listening to this CD is not death alone but as a final chapter of a rich life well lived. The short life of the disc's title as well as Hough's fourth Piano Sonata refers not to an individual's life cut short but to the brevity of our time on earth set against the vast panorama of eternity.
Certainly all life is present in Bach's Chaconne and Busoni's masterly transcription only enhances this; tenderness, turbulence, anger, resignation, love, sorrow and joy are all here in good measure. No note is out of place in Hough's thoroughly gripping performance. The sound is glorious whether that is the judicious bass doublings, the layered building of texture or the stillness in Hough's utterly sensitive playing of the quasi tromboni. Chopin's B flat minor Sonata didn't receive its Funeral March title from the Polish master; as with Beethoven's supposed Moonlight sonata the name is an external sobriquet that stuck but, unlike Beethoven, Chopin was still alive to be aware of it and want it removed. It is evidently in our nature to be drawn to descriptive titles however so it still retains its limpet-like grip though expressly not so amongst this disc's documentation. Hough manages to convey great breadth and expansiveness in all of the movements without at any time sounding slow or ponderous. It is unsentimental but does not lack for warmth or humanity with gentle coaxing rubato throughout; the first movement's sostenuto theme is a case in point as is the simple delicacy of the Marche funèbre's central section. I am impressed too with the finale, surely the most unruly of the four children, to use Schumann's description of the Sonata's movements; Hough's performance is a miracle of legerdemain with a depth of clarity that doesn't sacrifice the brief movement's mystery.
Naturally Liszt's funeral march is a different beast to Chopin's. In Funérailles, the seventh of his Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, passions are writ large, grand and terrifying. Terrifying the opening certainly is and the insanely tolling bells that Hough conjures are remorseless in their fury. The widely varying moods of this work are captured perfectly by Hough and he graduates dynamics and scale so well that I found myself regaining my breath at each release of tension without realising I was holding it; the transition from the final grandioso iteration of the main theme into the più lento are five bars of finely controlled deliverance even if it is a brief moment before the tolling bells return. Liszt's Bagatelle sans tonalité comes as almost light relief after this apocalyptic narrative though when it was composed its unsettled harmonies and devilry, confirmed by Liszt's grouping it with the Mephisto waltzes, would have been harder to understand than the grand tone poem that is Funérailles. It is delicious ghost of a waltz, coruscating under Hough's fingers.
Busoni's 6th Sonatina, his Kammer-Fantaisie über Carmen is a tautly constructed mini fantasy, almost mirroring the opera fantasies of the 19th century. These would very often follow an introduction, slow theme with variations and gradually working round to a grand climax. Busoni instead opens with the festivities, the colourful abandon of the Act 4 opening leads us to the themes Carmen and Don José; Carmen, seductive and hypnotic in her Habanera, Don José, open-hearted and pleading in the Flower song. The music of the toreadors' grand arrival dispels this music and it is here that it all begins to fall apart, dissolving into the opera's motif of 'death' or 'fate', grimly playing against an agonisingly slow chromatic descent into nothingness. This is one of the best versions of this piece I have heard in a long while and quite apart from the varied hues that Hough clothes his performance in he finds an achingly beautiful sound in Don José's familiar aria.
Hough's 4th Sonata, entitled Vida breve is only slightly longer than the Sonatina that precedes it. Its main theme, questioning and fragile, is heard high in the piano right at the outset. It is made even more enigmatic by the falling chords that give a bluff answer to its imploring tones. Contrapuntal passages follow based on a three note falling phrase and the piece gradually rises to the higher reaches of the instrument for a more declamatory, confident statement of the opening theme. This inspires a new contrapuntal passage, almost febrile in its anxious interplay which gives way to a slower section that is almost romantic in its yearning passion. More quicksilver passagework follows, playing against interjections of the work's themes that gradually assert dominance though a final, abrupt statement of the opening theme brings things to a decisive if still enigmatic close.
In keeping with his recital programmes Hough ends with what could be called encores. The ancient Korean song Arirang seems to have different lyrics in several versions but the themes of separation and reunion, love and sorrow remain constant and tie in well with the disc's subject. As Bach opened the recital so he closes it though Gounod's familiar Méditation is a far cry from the drama of the Chaconne. Hough plays the piano arrangement that Gounod made some six years before his more familiar vocal version. Both work perfectly as meditative music as one reflects on the parade of overwhelming emotions that have played out over the course of the disc.
This is a terrific disc with world class playing. Hough's technique is staggering in all respects but that never overshadows the music and I am constantly drawn in by his artful melody lines, elegant phrasing and masterful pedalling. Death does indeed come to us all but Hough demonstrates that the path to it is an enriching and affirmative experience.