Stephen Hough – In the Night = SCHUMANN: In der Nacht from Fantasiestuecke, Op. 12; Carnaval, Op. 9; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, “Moonlight”; CHOPIN: Two Nocturnes; HOUGH: Piano Sonata No. 2 “notturno luminoso” – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion

Stephen Hough – In the Night = SCHUMANN: In der Nacht from Fantasiestuecke, Op. 12; Carnaval, Op. 9; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”; CHOPIN: Two Nocturnes, Op. 27; HOUGH: Piano Sonata No. 2 “notturno luminoso” – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion CDA67996, 77:12 (5-13-14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The eponymous In the Night immediately finds a reference in this recital (rec. 9-10 May 2013) by Stephen Hough (b. 1961) in the Schumann whirling, almost feverish character piece from Fantasiestuecke, in which the convulsive throes of Florestan find some repose in the middle section, presumably narrated by Eusebius. The night itself partakes of the duality presented: the source of both romantic, erotic love and the repository of all unknown terrors. Hough, often cited as “the intellectual’s virtuoso,” brings passion and decisive dramatic flair to the fore in this first Schumann offering.

Hough avoids the lethargic and lugubrious approach to the Moonlight Sonata, playing with “extreme delicacy and without dampers” as directed, but retaining a forward singing line that holds its own poise and mystery, without bathos.  Moving ever forward in graduated crescendo, Beethoven casts his next movement as an Intermezzo, an Allegretto whose plastic charm obviously ingratiates it to Hough. The heavy bass chords in the trio section already signify the girth and even abysmal dimensions the powerful last movement Presto agitato achieves.  The ensuing whirlwind complements the two prior movements in the manner of fantasia, tumultuous as a line from Shelley’s West Wind Ode, in which the narrator wishes to witness, simultaneously, elemental forces of creation and destruction. Hough’s piano here proves incredibly lifelike, courtesy of Recording Engineer Simon Eadon.

Hough imbues the two Chopin Op. 27 Nocturnes, the C-sharp Minor and the D-flat Major, with a sense of lyrical and dramatic pathos, tragedy softened by a bel canto aria that may well emanate from an instrumental siren. The former gains a relentless, tidal vehemence after having lapped at the seashore, Larghetto.  The potent crescendo explodes with elements of mazurka-rhythm, another of those patriotic cannons surrounded by beguiling flowers.  An unwavering left-hand figure dominates the florid D-flat Nocturne, built on two themes made of roulades and thirds, respectively.  This piece singularly defines “Romantic intimacy” as we know it.  A subtle variation technique informs the progression of the main melody, increasingly haunted as it moves, with fierce pearls of light, through the delicate tracery in right hand figurations.

Hough calls his Piano Sonata No. 2 “notturno luminoso,” a claim that its light emanates from “a brash city in the hours of darkness.”  Maybe the 1942 Nighthawks of Edward Hopper serves as a proper visual analogy.  We might argue for Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” urges the same need for sanctuary. An irrational clangor marks the first movement, made of sharps, flats, and “neutral” tones. Hough wants to convey in the two large sections “disturbing dreams or irrational fears which are only darkened by the harsh glare of a suspended, dusty light bulb.” But the writing moves, with fitful fevers, into moments of “heightened emotions . . .mysticism. . .magic. . . imaginative possibilities.” We can hear elements of jazz, Liszt, 12-tone progression, and hints of Beethoven’s Op. 111. What Hough calls a “blizzard” of sound erupts, C Major, then after a pianissimo, the music presents an Andante lamentoso, a sorrowful dirge for our troubled times. The music reaches critical mass, apocalypse, or epiphany, depending on one’s sensibility, “a final wild scream,” Hough puts it, “brighter than noon.”

There seems no apparent reason for Schumann’s popular 1834-1835 Carnaval to qualify as a night-piece than as a party for any other time of day, but maybe Jay Gatsby would concur with Hough. Schumann’s extroverted Florestan takes the lion’s share of the spotlight in Hough’s broadly aggressive survey, for even the poetic, Eusebius episodes reveal a palpable degree of wistful urgency.  The Valse noble exhibits a decided contrast as one of the slowest realizations I know. The purely virtuosic and playful elements certainly find a sympathetic set of fingers in Hough, who blisters the sections explicitly marked Presto.  Among the more poised interpretations of Carnaval, the suite confirms the oft-repeated epithet for Hough as “the intellectuals’ virtuoso.” The March of the David’s-Leaguers finally dispels any kind of mental darkness, casting the light of “truth and poetry” into a skeptical universe. Brilliantly performed and sonorously recorded, there were any number of moments I forgot I had been auditioning on headphones and thought the grand marches and spinning flirtations of this grand ball after Jean-Paul Richter were loudly reproduced directly over my living room speakers.

—Gary Lemco

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