CHOPIN: Complete Waltzes; Nocturne in E-flat Major – Stephen Hough, p. – Hyperion

by | Aug 12, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

CHOPIN: Complete Waltzes; Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion CDA67849, 60:22 [Distr. By Harmonia mundi] ****:

Unless it be part of an intended survey of the entire cycle of Chopin keyboard works, I can hardly “justify” another excursion (rec. 17-20 October 2010) into the waltzes, even by such an artful performer as Stephen Hough. Hough divides the set of twenty waltzes into the two major categories “published” (through Op. 64) and “unpublished” (Opp. 69 and 70 and seven from the most recent collected edition), a sort of compromise between traditional groupings and the true chronological arrangement recorded by Mordecai Shehori on Cembal d’amour. A third section, “Doubtful Attributions,” concludes the survey with three entries, of which the last, “Valse melancolique” (KKIb/7) seems to have been penned by an artful Chopin imitator.
Hough, nevertheless, performs brilliantly on a particularly bright Yamaha captured in lush sonorities by engineer Simon Eadon. Chopin raised the conception of the waltz as a dance form that could transcend any social function and satisfy the requirements of high art. The more intricate aspect of the waltzes is their often deceptive metrical units, often falling out of triple meter into some variant of duple meter with a perceptible shift of accent, in the manner of a mazurka. The gifted performer may add tempo rubato to his heart’s content so long as the inner pulsation remains steady. Hough’s strongly articulated first two waltzes–Op. 18 and Op. 34, No. 1–convey an elastic élan, urbane wit, and stylistic finesse to grant him full status into “the League of Chopin,” were a cult to this composer available in the Schumann sense of the “Davids-League.”  The sheer demonism in the F Major, Op. 34, No. 3 should startle and delight the most hardened auditor of these ubiquitous bon-bons. Except for a select few minor mode waltzes–in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 2; the earliest, in B Minor, Op. 69, No. 2; the F Minor, Op. 70, No. 2; the potent E Minor (old No. 14); and the popular C-sharp Minor, Op. Op. 64, No. 2–the waltzes avoid the melancholic humor, although they have their moments of reflection, as in the A-flat Major 2/4 contribution, Op. 42. Someday, someone will insist the D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1 be spoken aloud as the “minute” (equal “tiny”) waltz, and not one that plays in 60 seconds; it doesn’t, ever.
For the cognoscenti the second half of the disc, devoted to the unpublished waltzes, may be the more fascinating. Hough opens this set with the metrically elusive D-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 3, whose accents and ornaments slide and shift in the mercurial poetry of a subtle mazurka, especially its trio section.  The B Minor, Op. 69, No. 2 asks for “dolente” as an affect, a clear evocation of a melancholy strain in its flurry of chromatic notes and series of balanced, swaying phrases occasionally infused by counterpoint. The E Major (KKIVa/12) literally glitters and drones its way through a salon, an aristocrat’s mingling with the hoi-polloi. If a waltz can be an etude, the Waltz in A-flat Major (KKIVa/13) qualifies. Its figures anticipate much of Op. 18. Wonderful rhythmic panache in pearly play from Hough in the artful 3/8 entry G-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 1 and the delicate A-flat Major, Op. 69, No. 1 waltzes. The latter of these has to me, in its lilted give-and-take, always seemed the perfect salon waltz. The A Minor (KKIVb/11) betrays its early mazurka roots, while swirling in a mode that remains emotionally aloof.
The “Sostenuto” entry (KKIVb/10) Chopin scripted more as an albumblatt than a waltz per se.  The Waltz in E-flat Major (KKIVa/14) has every earmark of a Schubert laendler or German Dance that found its way into the Pole’s oeuvre. Hough makes it sing a kind of broken-melody mountain yodel. Who really composed the F-sharp Minor Waltz? Hough engages us with it enough so that we no longer care. As a postlude to these charming and effective pieces, we have another moment of “ultimate” Chopin, the E-flat Major Nocturne, rendered in wistfully elegant figures by Hough, who obviously venerates these enduring masterpieces.
— Gary Lemco

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