The French Album
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor,  BWV565 (1708) (arr. Alfred Cortot & Stephen Hough) [8:40]
Arioso   - from  Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV1056 (1738-1739) (arr. Cortot) [2:33]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Nocturne No. 6 in D flat major,  Op. 63 (1894) [7:43]
Improvisation in C sharp minor - No. 5 of  Huit Pièces brèves, Op. 84 (1901) [2:07]
Impromptu No. 5 in F sharp minor,  Op. 102 (1908-1909) [2:10]
Barcarolle No. 5 in F sharp minor,  Op. 66 (1894) [5:49]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso - from  Miroirs (1904-1905) [6:25]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Crépuscule - No. 5 of  Poëme pastoral (1872) (arr. Hough) [2:00]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Mélancolie - No. 2 of  Dix Pièces pittoresques (1881) [1:51]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Mélancolie  (1940) [5:40]
Nocturne No. 4 in C minor, ‘Bal fantôme’  (1934) [1:35]
Improvisation No. 8 in A minor (1934) [1:17]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Automne - No. 2 of  Études de concert, Op 35 (1886) [5:35]
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer - No. 8 of  25 Préludes, Op. 31 (1847) [4:11]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Clair de lune - from  Suite bergamasque (1890/1905) [4:55]
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Pizzicati - Act 3 Divertissement from  Sylvia (1876) (arr. Hough) [2:34]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Réminiscences de La Juive - Fantaisie brillante sur des motifs de l'opéra de Halévy,  S409a (1835) [13:21]
Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. 6 June 2009, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA (Bach Toccata); 19-20 October 2010; 23-24 May 2011, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
HYPERION CDA67890 [78:26]
Hyperion is the pre-eminent label when it comes to fine pianists and even finer piano recordings. In recent years I’ve come to cherish many discs and downloads from this stable of distinguished artists, among them Marc-André Hamelin, Danny Driver, Philip Martin, Steven Osborne and the stellar soloist on this new album, Stephen Hough. The quality of their playing is a given, and Hyperion’s roster of top-notch venues and engineers just adds to the desirability of the finished product. Indeed, this collection of French bon-bons - mostly recorded in the sometimes rather cool ambience of the Wyastone Concert Hall - promises to be just as tasty as its predecessors.
The two Bach pieces slip under the wire by virtue of the fact that they’re arrangements by the Franco-Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot. Hough plays them with a simple directness - rather than attention-seeking brio - that pretty much encapsulates his approach to the music here. Articulation is crisp and his phrasing is refreshingly free of mannerisms; the change of venue after that opening Toccata is clearly audible, but one’s ears adjust quickly enough. The Fauré foursome is blessed with an easy warmth and generosity of spirit that’s utterly beguiling; and while this revealing acoustic ensures the utmost clarity, there’s no hint of hardness or excess glitter.
This is the kind of programme that lends itself to background listening, but even then I’d expect casual listeners to stop what they’re doing and revel in this pianist’s fine control of rhythm and line; just sample those gentle, deck-tilting moments in the Barcarolle and the contrasting moods of Alborado del gracioso, all so deftly done. As for Massenet’s Crépuscule, it’s a miracle of fluidity and feeling, and Hough maintains that delicate equilibrium most beautifully. The three Poulenc pieces are especially welcome, their economy of style no bar to approachability or sentiment. Really, this is a wellspring of pure loveliness, and a clever foil to those more effusive 19th-century works.
Then there’s the tiny Improvisation - blink and you’ll miss it - and Chaminade’s leaf-swirling depiction of Autumn; these two pieces - thoughtful but not studied, laid back but not lazy - are a perfect distillation of Hough’s finely balanced musicianship. Even Debussy’s ubiquitous Clair de lune shimmers more evocatively than ever; dynamics are superbly shaded and the whole piece is naturally shaped and projected. After that the pointed little Pizzicati from Delibes’ ballet Sylvia is a palate-cleanser; the disc ends with Liszt’s imperious take on Halévy’s grand opera La Juive. It’s a showpiece that can seem harmonically overburdened and generally rather prolix; that it doesn’t is a tribute to Hough’s mercurial playing.
What a scintillating coda to this entertaining CD. My only caveats - and they’re very small ones - are that the programme could have been a tad more varied in terms of mood and tempo, and that the recording is a mite less captivating than usual from this source. These are the merest of niggles, and they shouldn’t delay your purchase of this fine disc or diminish your enjoyment of it one iota.
Fine playing and excellent sonics; an album to treasure.
Dan Morgan  

Fine playing and excellent sonics; an album to treasure.