Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete Waltzes
Waltz in E flat major, Op.18 [5:10]
3 Waltzes, Op.34 [:36]
Waltz in A flat major, Op.42 [4:05]
3 Waltzes, Op. 64 [8:38]
Waltz in D flat major Op.70 No.3 [2:33]
Waltz in B minor Op.69 No.2 [2:41]
Waltz in E major KKIV/12 [2:03]
Waltz in A flat major KKIV/13 [1:19]
Waltz in E minor KKIV/15 [2:42]
Waltz in G flat major Op.70 No.1 [2:06]
Waltz in A flat major Op.69 No.1 [3:00]
Waltz in F minor Op.70 No.2 [2:33]
Waltz in A minor KKIVb/11 [1:32]
Waltz in E flat major KKIVb/10 [1:22]
Waltz in E flat major KKIVa/14 [2:18]
Waltz in F sharp minor KKIb/7 [2:28]
Nocturne in E flat major Op.9 No.2 [3:52]
Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. 17-20 October 2010, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth
HYPERION CDA67849 [60:22]

Stephen Hough’s recording of Chopin’s Complete Waltzes rode high in the classical music charts on its release, and by all accounts it is indeed richly deserving of every success. I’ve seen a few Chopin ‘complete waltzes’ discs pass through of late, including a very nice one with Alice Sara Ott on Deutsche Grammophon (see review) which presents the works with grace and lightness of touch. Garrick Ohlsson competes with and undercuts Stephen Hough on the same label (see review), and his performances often sweep the listener away in a manner which invites the imagination to join in on wild and whirling dances. The quieter, more reflective pieces become more explorative, interest being generated through fine little touches of rubato and a nice sense of melodic shape. While Ohlsson’s recording is by no means undifferentiated in terms of colour and touch, Stephen Hough’s recording is however in a league of its own by comparison.

What is it that makes Stephen Hough’s Chopin special? I could go on about his lovely touch with those little and indeed sometimes not-so-little inflections of rubato, his variety of tone colour and articulation, those rhythms which dance and melodies which really sing. All of these are present and more: you can expect to have plenty of surprises along the way, and I can promise that I found none of these to be unpleasant. What also I hear in Hough’s Chopin is a sense of story, each piece having its own narrative and inner world. This might seem like an intangible and subjective response to these pieces, but right from the outset you can quite easily sense the ‘public announcement’ openings of both of the first two waltzes in the programme. The Waltz in E flat major Op.18 then takes us into different rooms, or moves amongst numerous groups of people in the same dance hall – each with a different point of view, and with something new to say on the same subject. The similar sounding Waltz in A flat major Op.34 No.1 is more gaudy and flamboyant a character, with a glittering carousel of a dress which hypnotises and causes its own ripples.

OK, I may be imposing imagery which perhaps isn’t really there, and I’ll admit that such aspects of this music will mean completely different things to different people. The real point is that the character and variety of approach Hough brings to each piece and each section of each piece, means that the ear and mind are never bored with just Waltzes. Listen to the way he manages to make the accompaniment equally expressive against that poignant melody in Op.34 No.2, and how the voice of the piano responds to the measures which transport us into a happier major tonality.

Breathtaking technique and musicality combined is jaw-droppingly present throughout this disc, and the famous ‘minute’ waltz Op.64 No.1 comes up familiar but freshly minted at the same time, those counter melodies and the accompanying harmonies bubbling along with well suppressed but unmistakably impish wit. Hough hears the pizzicato of a salon orchestra double-bass in Op.64 No.3, and a romantic trio of singers in the central section. The upper voices of the opening to Op.70 No.3 have a dulcimer sweetness which is replied to by a charming cellist in the second section, and their relationship develops most satisfactorily by the end of the piece.

The programme is here divided into three sections: published, followed by unpublished waltzes, with a shorter section for ‘doubtful attributions’, which doesn’t always mean the works are not by Chopin, though the Valse mélancolique KK1b/7 is generally accepted to be a well executed fake. The beautiful Nocturne in E flat major Op.9 No.2 is included as a kind of encore. The ordering of the opus numbers has been well chosen, with a nicely planned shuffling of the Op.69 and Op.70 sets. The piano is superlatively well recorded in the familiar and favourable acoustic of the Wyastone Concert Hall in Monmouth. While acknowledging the special qualities of Arthur Rubinstein’s and Dinu Lipatti’s recordings of these pieces, I hear greater character in Hough than with Ott and more subtlety than with Ohlsson, and would therefore safely recommend this as the best recording of Chopin’s waltzes in current currency.

Dominy Clements

Best in currency.