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RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR

January

‘Hough reveals each miniature as a compact piece of theatre, putting an array of timbres and varied accentuation at its service’

Michelle Assay finds Stephen Hough’s approach to late Brahms revelatory, with its combination of imagination, sensitivity and colour, and its lack of self-indulgence

Brahms ‘The Final Piano Pieces’ Piano Pieces – Op 116; Op 117; Op 118; Op 119 Stephen Hough pf Hyperion F CDA68116 (69’ • DDD)

Blend imaginative yet learned interpretation, profound sensitivity and poetry, and personal charisma, and you have here one of the finest accounts of Brahms’s late piano works on record, one that stands head and shoulders above most contenders in an evergrowing catalogue. I always revel in the prospect of a new disc by Stephen Hough. The superlative piano-playing aside, the whole presentation is so thoughtful: the choice of cover illustration, the imaginative programming (remember his Janá∂ek and Scriabin pairing) and his essays or booklet contributions. In this case the booklet notes are largely a reprint of Misha Donat’s text for Hyperion’s previous recording with Garrick Ohlsson but they are crowned by a short yet highly charged note from Hough. And the quietly evocative atmosphere of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s painting on the cover sets the scene for what is inside. So much to enjoy, even before hearing a note.

The picture and Hough’s words are key to understanding his approach to these so often played works, though admittedly his ravishing colouristic palette has no analogy in the shades of grey of Hammershøi’s masterpiece. In much more eloquent words than mine, Hough comments on late style in general and how Brahms fits, or rather refuses to fit, with the clichés of mortality and decay, of a return to simplicity, transparency of texture and so on. Brahms transcends all these. His are intimate, even lonely creations, with autumnal but multicoloured emotional shades, ranging from the stirring outbursts of the three Capriccios of Op 116 to perhaps the closest music has come to depicting sunset, in the first Intermezzo of Op 119. Hough is supremely sensitive to the passage of time between these two opuses. What a journey he takes us on from the stormy, surging quality of much of Op 116, to the nostalgia that predominates in Op 119; it’s as if the shadow of Schumann is gradually effaced as we travel between these works.

Hough reveals each miniature as a compact piece of theatre, putting an array of timbres and varied accentuation at its service. For him late Brahms is evidently not so much Prospero hanging up his magic garments as a compilation of many characters and soliloquys, and certainly much more than ‘lullabies of his grief’. I wonder if Brahms would have PHO T O G R A P H Y

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4 GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 2020

gramophone.co.uk

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