This recital was recorded in New York in 1987 and was a MusicMasters release. It’s one of an increasing numbers of MM issues released under licence by Nimbus and represents an early outing on disc for Stephen Hough. The programme is typically eclectic with Golden Age pianism nestling next to some cosy adaptations by the pianist of Quilter songs, as well as an outing for the Kashmiri Love Song in another Hough arrangement. This makes for diverting listening in a well organised recital, finely recorded.
I’m sure that you’d be very satisfied if you played through the twenty items without a pause. If you did stop however to dig out an old recording by a piano titan of yore you might have more to think about, to reflect on changes in performance practice and traditions, to consider questions of colour and rubato and voice leading, to examine approaches to phrasal continuity and the like. Let’s take Mischa Levitzki’s Waltz. No one is suggesting Hough should play it as Levitzki himself did back in 1929 or earlier on an acoustic in 1924 but one can note that the composer-executant used far less rubato than Hough does and that the sense of colour and rhythmic snap that marked out Levitzki’s performance of his own piece is far more muted in Hough’s.
Or to take another example, back in 1927 Friedman recorded his own Musical Box. Both he and Hough ‘wind down’ deliciously but it’s Friedman who plays with the greater incision and glitters the more. The Saint-Saëns-Godowsky The Swan is played with real beauty but without Cherkassky’s glittering voicings and his almost supernaturally beautiful sense of colour.
He does score in Godowsky’s The Gardens of Buitenzorg from the Java Suite, which is vested with palpable relish. But again in Paderewski’s once far-too-familiar Minuet in G we find that Hough is less overtly teasing, less capricious, slower, and his rubati sound too measured and even predictable. It’s by no means a bad performance but it sounds like one unversed in the ethos of the time.
Set against this we have the charming Quilter arrangements, a better performance of the Paderewski Nocturne than the Minuet, and the virtuosic battlegrounds of the Dohnányi and the Schlözler. Gabrilowitsch’s Melodie in E receives a warmly reflective reading. The title track, as it were, is perhaps a little wan, but the Woodforde-Finden arrangement evokes the gentle Edwardiana well. Moszkowski’s Caprice espagnol is vivacious.
Hough mavens will want to experience this early recordings whilst admirers of Golden Age pianism will be curious to hear him traverse the territory. Generally he convinces in the broad sweep.
Jonathan Woolf , Musicweb-international.com