The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Stephen Hough talks about his outstanding new recording and why French music sounds lusciously French.

October 27, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Stephen Hough (below) is a much acclaimed, prize-winning pianist, the first instrumentalist ever to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Hough has just released another recording. He is, to be sure, a prolific recording artist with so many titles and so few duds.

As often happens with Hough, it is in the sampler format. This one is called “The French Album.” (He has also done Spanish, English and  Mozart albums. Hmmm… what I wonder what he would include on The German Album?)

The mostly terrific new CD (below) features works by many composers you would expect as well as some you might not, including Ravel, Debussy and Faure to say nothing of Chaminade, Delibes and Chabrier. It also includes some non-French music that was arranged by the famous 20th-century French pianist Alfred Cortot, and some music by Massenet that Hough himself arranged. (Hough is a composer who recently premiered his own Piano Sonata No. 2.)

The Ear has listened to the CD and finds it typical of Hough’s excellence in the way he combines through absolutely first-rate technique and deep musical sensitivity, always bringing together clarity and lyricism.

There are only a couple of places where I think he went wrong. The biggest is wasting 8 minutes on the transcription by Cortot (below) of J.S. Bach’s famously dramatic and popular Toccata and Fugue in D minor for the piano.

Just the one Cortot transcription of the soulful but short slow movement from Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor would have done the job. And hearing the famous “Clair de lune” of Debussy by itself is a bit pandering and incomplete, though it will surely help the CD sell. Better that Hough should have played a Debussy prelude like “Sounds and Perfumes.”

Similarly, I really wonder whether the flashy Liszt concert paraphrase of melodies from the opera “La Juive” by Fromenthal Halevy qualifies as French music. I don’t think so, except perhaps in some distant etymological sense. Again, I would rather hear more of Hough’s exquisite Faure or Ravel or Debussy, or even maybe early French keyboard music like Couperin or Rameau, which would surely benefit for his clarity.

I would much rather have heard something else truly French and truly unknown. That is why I especially like his recording of relatively unknown works by Alkan (at bottom) and Poulenc.

Last weekend, Hough was interviewed by host Guy Raz (below) on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and he spoke eloquently and humorously about the new recording for Hyperion. He even touched descriptively on what makes French music sound French to us – especially if, like The Ear, you are a devout Francophile.

That is, why is French music – like French Impressionist painting – always seems to us Americans, Brits and Germans so sexy or at least sensual, with just the right soupcon of illicitness and sin.

Well, what do expect from the same culture that brought us haute couture and haute cuisine as well as Proust and Baudelaire, French kissing and French cut underwear? It is all part of what The Ear calls “The Souffle Aesthetic” that relies on “more air than egg.” And stylistically it never fails to seduce and charm.

As retro-spy novelist and fellow Fracophile Alan Furst (below) has written, The French like three things: reason, beauty and little things done well.

Voila!!!!

It is an interview that you might want to hear, especially if you live in a city like Madison where Hough has played and conducted master classes several times. He is a supremely articulate thinker as well as a supremely gifted pianist.

Here is a link to that NPR interview with Raz:

http://www.npr.org/2012/10/21/163252853/stephen-houghs-french-album-a-musical-dessert-trolley

And here is a link to Hough’s personal blog of the British newspaper The Telegraph. Hough is a curious and exploratory being, an openly gay man who converted to Catholicism at 19 and who writes about many things besides music and piano playing, although he also is offering tips about playing the piano in an installment form.

It is all enough to make Hough perhaps the most interesting pianist on the planet since he also rises way above just wiggling his fingers well:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/author/stephenhough/

Enjoy!

And be sure to leave a COMMENT about what you like and don’t like about Stephen Hough; about his recordings including his new one; and about his blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


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