Rebecca Franks
BBC Music Magazine
February 2023

Against a black background, we see a table laid for one, with a solitary plate, glass and knife placed on a white tablecloth. If ever an image encapsulated the feeling of silence, this would be it. Table, by the Spanish artist Isabel Baquedano is the arresting cover of Stephen Hough’s latest recording, which turns to one of the piano repertoire’s most rarefied and elusive works, Mompou’s Música callada.

As Philip Clark explains in his insightful booklet notes, the Catalan composer’s four volumes, published between 1959 and 1967, are rooted in the contradictions of ‘silent music’ (música callada) and ‘sounding solitude’ (soledad Sonora) explored by St John of the Cross. What might sound like a paradox makes sense when listening: we are as aware of the space around the music, its edges and boundaries, as we are the notes themselves.

Hough is the ideal guide. He wholly inhabits the music’s mystical atmosphere, its holy simplicity. Exquisite sensitivity is matched by a steely strength. Sounds coalesce and insist on their presence, before disappearing into the ether. Austerity blends with warmth. It is, wrote the polymath Hough, ‘the music of evaporation’; his performance is one of perfectly judged understatement.

Across 28 meditative miniatures—many of which are marked ‘Lento’, while others are ‘Calme’, ‘Tranquillo’ and ‘Luminoso’—the fascination never slips. And throughout, the bells echo. The family of Mompou’s mother owned a bell foundry, and the peals and chimes of his childhood are never far away, translated into tolling rhythms, metallic sounds and harmonies. Hough first recorded Mompou’s music back in 1997; this second album is well worth the wait.