Thursday, 17 November 2011

Stephen Hough plays Grieg & Liszt Concertos (CD Review)

Stephen Hough (piano); Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton (Hyperion CDA67824: 69 minutes)

One of Hyperion’s longest running projects is its Romantic Piano Concertos series. But it presents this repertoire in recordings that make a habit of stripping away what one might view as the excessive, overblown—indeed, what some might term ‘Romantic’—habits that can attach themselves to such works. The prolific Stephen Hough does this better than most, and although this disc is released independently of the Piano Concertos series, it features Hough, enthusiastically aided and abetted by Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic, in a fresh, spruced-up account of the ever-ubiquitous Grieg concerto, coupled—unusually but effectively—with Liszt’s two concertos. The playing from both soloist and orchestra is detailed and considered, and one constantly has the feeling that Hough and Litton have gone back to first principles, that each marking in the score has been discussed and applied, dynamics carefully noted and tempo directions graded.

This is apparent right from the start of the first work on the disc, Liszt’s E-flat concerto, where the piano's lower octaves are tightly clipped. As the performance progresses, there are new little surprises: emphases here and further clipped phrases there. Each time we slip into a mood of reverie, Hough’s delicate, languid touch is exquisite, while he brings impeccable clarity to the more virtuosic writing and an appealing perkiness to the lighter passages. Nothing in the accompaniments is perfunctory. The same goes for the A-major work, where one also notices particularly fine solo work from the Bergen players.

Yet, for all the immense skill and taste on show, I couldn't help wishing for a bit more sense of danger. The first concerto’s scherzando writing should give a sense of dancing atop a powder keg, while the stormy interjections to the Quasi adagio should sound less comfortable. I also missed the sense of drama Hough achieved in the furious dash to the finish when he performed the work with Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Festival Hall earlier in the year. Similarly, the big b-flat minor passage in the second concerto seemed a touch polite, while Hough’s furious final glissando in the final Allegro animato sounds a bit incongruous in the context.

I suppose similar observations apply to the Grieg. Here we have another outstanding traversal of the score: intelligent, beautifully played, expertly gauged and controlled. Once again there’s outstanding solo work from the Bergen orchestra: both bassoon and horn are exquisite in their turns at accompanying the piano in the first movement’s second subject; the flute sings out the finale’s lyrical tune beautifully (even if the breaths break up the slurs as marked in my score). Hough’s playing is a model of crystalline virtuosity, spiced up with the occasional unexpected kick or shift in tempo (often, in fact, a reflection of one of Grieg’s markings). I did wish, however, for a bit more sense of abandon in the first-movement cadenza, or the occasional  sacrifice of voicing for a more visceral sense of excitement. The decision to cut the speed and belabour the piano’s oom-pahs when the finale’s first idea returns, meanwhile, produced a jarring effect and made me question anew whether or not that movement’s basic tempo wasn't a notch too slow.

A lot of this is just quibbling, though, and for more grandly rhetorical pianism, or for more homogenised tempos, there’s no shortage of other recordings. It says a great deal for this disc that its intelligent, musical approach to these works distinguishes it in an overcrowded field. These are interesting, refreshing accounts of familiar pieces that are well worth hearing.

[Available from Amazon or direct from Hyperion]

No comments:

Post a Comment