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CD of the Week – Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough: French Album
Hyperion

The English pianist is so much a law unto himself that if he decides a piece is French we must take his word for it. Only Hough would dare to kick off a so-called French Album with two pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and end it with one by Franz Liszt. How French is that?

The justifications, if such things are needed, are that the Bach solos he plays are arrangements by the austerely Gallic Alfred Cortot and the Liszt is a compilation of themes from Halévy’s La Juive, arguably the cornerstone of romantic French opera.

In between, Hough strings a sterling-silver chain of jewelled morsels by Fauré, Ravel, Massenet, Chabrier, Poulenc, Debussy, Delibes and Cécile Chaminade. Mostly, such pieces send me back to sleep when played as fillers on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast programme. The Faurés, I’m sure, Hough can play in his sleep. Here, however, he presents each amuse-bouche as a banquet in itself – integral, entire and altogether satisfying until the ear remembers that it is empty and demands more. There is never a risk of torpor on this CD.

In the thick of exquisite tidbits sits a four-minute masterpiece of commanding solemnity – a prelude by Charles-Valentin Alkan that stops time in its tracks and makes you wonder how anyone, anywhere, could compose music in any other form. Alkan was a recluse, found dead in his Paris apartment beneath a collapsed bookcase, his parrot still chirping. His works demand formidable hands and his advocates have been few: Busoni, Edwin Fischer, Ronald Smith, Olli Mustonen, Marc-Andre Hamelin. Hough, in La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer announces a new contender in the Alkan championships, a striking intelligence applied to the most intellectually challenging of 19th century keyboard masters.

Three contemporary CDs

Michael Shapiro: Variation
Paumanok

The New York composer has written two sets on Jewish Sabbath hymns, one for solo cello (Sato Knudsen), the other violin (Tim Fain). Both marry lyricism to the mathematical logic of the variation form – and do so with charm, boldness and a winsome wit.

Little Heaven: Songs of Lowell Liebermann
Albany

Another New Yorker, Liebermann pulls off the considerable feat of setting the Holocaust poet Nelly Sachs without maudlin modes, his notes as sparing as her words. Brenda Rae is the soprano. Rae is joined by baritone John Hancock, with William Hobbs at the piano, in two further cycles. Tough, original writing – just as I like it.

A Different World
Champs Hill

Baltic composers (Barkauskas, Salonen, Bacewicz) and some others are plinked and played on violin and piano by Diana Galvydyte and Christopher Guild. Some may find it a tad wintry, but Balsys’s evocative Lament and James MacMillan’s two pieces are well worth the admission price.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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