Review: Stephen Hough, 'In the Night'

In his latest recording for Hyperion, the acclaimed pianist Stephen Hough performs works that are associated with the nocturnal in some way. He presents a large slice of night music that moves from depictions of moonlight through to the movement of the dancers at a carnival. There is also much time for introspection in the darkness too.


The programme stays largely within the core nineteenth-century repertoire, ranging from the classical through to the Romantic, from Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata through to Chopin’s Nocturnes and night-time works by Schumann. The only exception is Hough’s own Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘notturno luminoso’, a new work that, in this context certainly, sounds both bravely modern and linked to the tradition.


We open most studiously with Schumann’s étude-like piece In der Nacht (op.12). This work is an uneasy listen, with much of the movement and texture being created by the internal notes, played within the hand. In this regard, it is the right work with which to start the recital (although it's not a very easy way in for the listener). For here, nothing is quite allowed to settle – a key attribute of the playing on this disc.


The history of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Op. 27 No.2 proves what a complicated business musical interpretation is. Famously, it was not called the ‘moonlight’ by the composer himself. Nevertheless, the moniker has stuck and, for all that you might want to fight against poetic readings of music, it still feels appropriate.


It is an extremely familiar work, the kind of thing that you might now expect to hear on an advert. Hough refuses to let the Adagio sostenuto become too torpid or sentimental an affair, moving through the triplets with a sense of purpose. He also chooses to hold back slightly before and after the notes of the melody. This kind of bracketing effect introduces a sense of disquiet into the work which should stop anyone hearing it as just ‘nice’ or ‘soothing’. This musical movement should never become too comfortable for the listener; nor is it allowed to be under Hough’s hands.


By contrast, the Allegretto – Liszt’s ‘flower between two abysses’ – is approached as a graceful dance. It’s in the fiery Presto agitato that Hough gets to flex his forearms and shoulders for the first time. When he plays those powerful chords marked fortissimo in the score, and especially the two that conclude the movement, he really blows any dust out of the action (and would probably have blown the hammers off of one of the composer’s own wooden-framed instruments).


The choice to place Chopin’s two Op. 27 Nocturnes next makes musical as well as programmatic sense. Here is another opus 27. In the first of these pieces, as in the Beethoven Sonata, we are presented with triplet accompaniments in C-sharp minor. Hough handles the broader dynamics of this Romantic masterpiece with ease, although the acceleration at the beginning of the second section (marked Più mosso in the score) is, perhaps, a little too sudden. In the second of the Nocturnes, Hough precisely marks out the disturbances that the composer puts into the surface of his melody.


Hough’s Sonata sounds startling after the serene ending of Chopin’s Nocturne. The musical ideas at work in the piece are outlined in the liner notes by the composer himself, and involve a movement between sharps, naturals and flats. Any programmatic readings of the work must stem from the different moods thus created.


The great heave of bass notes which seem to just fall out the bottom of the piano midway through the work are startling. Held by the pedal, they feel like an earthquake or cannon’s boom. This is a Romantic musical gesture, as is the melodic material that builds in the lower region of the keyboard minutes later, which almost threatens to recall Liszt’s Funérailles. The Andante lamentoso section is most affecting.


We end with Schumann’s half an hour long Carnaval, with its cast of characters and moods. The Préambule is played in a stately manner, as though the doors have been flung open and the protagonists are processing into the hall. The Valse noble is noble indeed but tinged with melancholy whilst Eusebius is dreamy, a fragment in which the notes drift by and which Hough plays in his typical manner. The shifts between the Valse allemande and the Paganini section and then back again are fantastically handled.


The sound on this recording is much like that on other Hyperion releases. Whilst the tone is precise and clear there is a tendency for the piano to sound a little empty, synthetic even, as if Hough were playing a digital keyboard and not a Steinway. The exception to this is in Hough’s own Piano Sonata, on which piece the instrument starts to sound analogue again. Here, the weight of the action seems to reveal itself. Perhaps this is just a result of the music’s dynamic and harmonic range.


As a recital, this disc forms an interesting and enjoyable commentary on programmatic responses to works. It exploits the extra-musical associations surrounding these pieces; it also points to some of the musical connections between them too. The playing throughout is typically accomplished.



The album In the Night is released by Hyperion Records as CDA67996.


© James Holden

Published Friday 30th May 2014