‘Sonatas and Poems’
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata N° 5, opus 53 – Poème in F-Sharp major, opus 32, N° 1 – Vers la flamme: poème, opus 72 – Piano Sonata N° 4, opus 30
Leos Janácek: On the Overgrown Path, Book 1 – Piano Sonata, ‘1.X.1905, From the Street’
Stephen Hough (Piano)
Recording: Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, Wales (May 24-25, 2011; May 7-8, 2013) – 72’39
Hyperion CDA67895 – Booklet in English. French and German
Now 54, British pianist Stephen Hough is a performer who has reinvented himself since his earliest days when many considered him a banger. Nadia Reisenberg, among New York’s most admired mentors who taught at Mannes College and The Juilliard School (where Mr. Hough now is a faculty member), is reported to have dismissed him haughtily as “vun uv doze benghairs.” Such an assessment definitely is no longer appropriate for this musician whose Beethoven Emperor Concerto in Montreal a few days ago was described as “too graceful and Classical in his approach” (Read here).
And Hough’s new CD of works by Scriabin and Janácek, while sometimes dynamic, is a long way from banging, even in stretches where an aggressive, percussive approach to his Yamaha and Steinway keyboards (he alternates between two instruments for the disc) might be considered appropriate.
The disc opens with Scriabin’s familiar Sonata N° 5, given a careful, almost cautiously slow approach. It’s a good enough reading as far as it goes, but it will leave many listeners wanting more, and no one will likely discard their Richter and Horowitz discs of the work when they’ve heard this. Hough’s approach to the remaining Scriabin works is pretty much the same. Dynamic and tonal range are limited and this often sounds almost like student playing. The Poème in F-Sharp major is a bit rushed while Vers la flamme never conjures the global warming or nuclear holocaust Scriabin is believed to have imagined in this extraordinary work.
Hough fares a bit better with Scriabin’s Sonata N° 4, bringing a fine delicacy to the brief introductory first movement and a teasing sensuality to the subsequent “Prestissimo volando” which leads to a vibrant climax.
The highlight of this disc, to be sure, would be the two works by Leos Janácek, especially the suite of ten short pieces titled On the Overgrown Path, Book 1. An overwhelming sadness permeates these, in part reflecting the death of not one but two of the composer’s children. The cohesive mood and impact recall Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces and Claude Debussy’s Préludes for piano. “Our evenings” finishes with an extended diminuendo which Hough realizes with genuine beauty; he brings a similar delicacy to “A blown away leaf” with its tune echoing “Little Buttercup” from H.M.S. Pinafore. “Come with us!” is transparent and fleet while “The Frydek Madonna”, after a light, mysterious opening, builds to a powerful climax. The soulful, delicate moods continue and Hough brings an admirable, varied approach to the entire palette. The final piece, “The barn owl has flown away!”, begins with a motif arguably redolent of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor then alternates with a chordal theme which pays clear homage to some of Franz Schubert’s Sonatas for piano.
Janácek’s Piano Sonata, ‘From the Street’ is more problematic. The composer completed the work during 1905-06 then destroyed it; however, a student kept a copy of the first two movements and almost two decades later he agreed these could be published and performed. The Sonata reflects political unrest in the composer’s native Czechoslovakia and has been previously recorded by pianists including Rudolf Firkusny, a student of the composer, and the Canadian Jacob Krichaf. The first movement is characterized by finesse and subtlety, while the second is teasing and almost erotically ambivalent though it builds to a huge climax. As with the Scriabin works, Hough seemed to be holding back at times and the impact listeners may have expected never really happened.
While this CD is a decidedly mixed bag in terms of the performances, it is welcome for Hough’s genuinely beautiful playing of Janácek’s On the Overgrown Path, Book 1.
Charles Pope Jr.