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Edvard GRIEG (1843–1907)
Lyric Pieces

Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 2014. DDD
Reviewed as 24/96 download from Hyperion Records
HYPERION CDA68070 [73:07]

 (also available on CD and as mp3 and 16-bit lossless downloads, all with pdf booklet).

1867 was the year that saw the appearance of the first volume of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces and Stephen Hough’s judiciously chosen programme begins appropriately enough with the first piece in this Opus 12 set, Arietta. Hough’s selection is a mix of reflective, melancholic, nostalgic, lively, cheerful and humorous pieces and the whole selection is framed by the Arietta at the beginning and the concluding Remembrances, the last of the Lyric Pieces. The former is a simple, beautiful song-like piece and the latter, written forty years later and using the same material, is transformed into a nostalgic waltz.

For a long time my favourite recorded performance of selections from the Lyric Pieces has been by Emil Gilels on DG and in spite of this excellent new recording from Stephen Hough, I shall always remain attached to this great Russian artist’s recording. I felt that Gilels has the edge over Hough in the Arietta. I was surprised and a little unsettled by the fast speed adopted by Hough here, and I like Gilels’ staccato left hand, as this adds a touch of humour as well as melancholy to Remembrances. Einar Steen-Nøkleberg misses the point in his performance of Remembrances on Naxos because of his desperately slow speed.  

The first piece from Opus 38 is Berceuse, touchingly and delicately played with judicious and sensitive rubato by Stephen Hough. The second section, marked to be played with a little more movement and in a minor key, is contrastingly sprightly and rhythmic.

The first piece in Book 3 is Butterfly played by Stephen Hough with immaculate clarity and deft finger-work. His performance is very similar to that of Emil Gilels, but the sound of this newer release is far superior to the 1974 DG recording, and Gilels’ use of the pedal makes for a comparatively blurry sound. Solitary Traveller is given an overall sweep by Hough, which is very effective, but Gilels more effectively portrays the sadness and loneliness of the title with his considerably slower tempo and sense of resignation.

Hough and the Hyperion engineers demonstrate the clarity of the latest recording techniques, effectively reflecting, for example the chirpiness of Little Bird. To Spring is the final piece in Book 3: one of the most frequently played and finest items from The Lyric Pieces. It is beautifully played here by Stephen Hough. With a wonderful sense of style, he expertly builds towards the two climaxes before allowing the music to die away to some finely balanced soft chords which conclude Book 3.

The centre-piece of Stephen Hough’s recital is Notturno, as it must always be in any Grieg recital. This is Grieg’s finest and most beautiful work and it is played here with great care and sensitivity. In this and Homesickness Stephen Hough easily brings us into a romantic world of melancholy and nostalgia, but he is able to change mood instantly in contrasting pieces such as Sylph and Homeward which follow.

Stephen Hough takes a measured and rather serious view of Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, but his performance is very effective, full of expressive detail and the climaxes are well-controlled. This is a very fine account of one of Grieg’s most popular pieces.

Puck is very fast and requires a very nimble and lively touch, and there is no doubting the immaculate dexterity and clarity of our pianist’s finger-work here. Equally fast, but devoid of musicality, is Einar Steen-Nøkleberg on Naxos, whereas Hough’s speedy playing is imbued with colour and imagination.

There is no doubting Stephen Hough’s commitment to this music, which he plays with a deep understanding of the style. He has real feeling for Grieg’s little gems and he dispatches them with consummate ease. As always, Hyperion have produced a first-class recording and the programme notes by Jeremy Nicholas are well-presented and informative. I have read a few adverse comments about Stephen Hough’s use of a Yamaha piano and have always been averse to the sound of Yamaha pianos until now, but this recording has changed my mind. As well as utmost clarity of sound, the tone is rich and warm, second to none. A fabulous recording!

Geoffrey Molyneux

Another review ...

My own benchmark for a selection of these pieces is the recording by Leif Ove Andsnes, now available at mid-price (Warner/EMI 5572962).  In fact, there isn’t too much overlap between that and the new Hyperion recording, so the two could be regarded as complementary, especially as, most surprisingly, the Andsnes selection omits the beautiful Til Våren (Spring).  Though it was originally included with his first recording of the Piano Concerto, it was omitted from the shorter selection on the budget-price reissue, with the Liszt Piano Concerto No.2 (Virgin 3913962 – review). It is, however, available with the other Op.43 and Op.54 pieces on another budget-price release of the concerto (Virgin Red Line 2322862).

Gilels also omits Til Våren and his selection also lacks Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen (Wedding Day at Troldhaugen) but his 56-minute selection on DG Originals is otherwise as fine as Stephen Hough’s and since it comes at mid-price I’d recommend it alongside the new recording.  As Gilels omits those two popular pieces and both are so well played by Hough, the new recording is self-recommending even if you already have the DG.  If you download both, the outlay need be little more than the price of one CD.  The Hyperion can be obtained in mp3 or 16-bit lossless, with pdf booklet, for £7.99, with 24-bit lossless only a little more expensive at £12.00, from hyperion-records.co.uk.  Sample/stream the Gilels from Qobuz: purchase there in lossless sound for £6.75 or in mp3 for £4.99 from 7digital.com.  (No booklet with either).

One small matter: the title of Wedding Day at Troldhaugen is given as Bryllupsday, a typo for Bryllupsdag.  The download booklet has been amended but it will be too late to amend the hard copies.  More to the point, Hough plays the piece with less abandon than you might expect, especially if you’re used to the orchestral version, but he does so very convincingly.  After all it’s about a marriage and that should ‘not … be taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly’ or whatever the equivalent of that is in the Norwegian Lutheran rite.  Andsnes doesn’t rush, either – in fact he takes significantly longer than Hough, especially in the middle section – and though his touch is slightly lighter than Hough’s, neither sounds ‘unadvised or wanton’. 

If you really want to hear the piece with a zip without sounding too hectic, try the piano-roll recording of Percy Grainger (2L blu-ray 2L60SABD, with the Piano Concerto, etc.).  I haven’t heard the APR reissue of his 1921 78 recording (APR7501 – review), but I see that he’s even faster there, possibly as a result of some pruning because of the exigencies of 78 timings.

Just as I was about to round off this review a new download-only selection of Lyric Pieces has appeared from Janina Fialkowska on Atma Classique ACD22696 – sample/stream/download from Qobuz or download from eclassical.com (mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless), both with pdf booklet.  Rather than delay this review longer than necessary, I’ll deal with that later, perhaps in the next Download News. 

I must apologise for having sat on Geoff Molyneux’s review until I had evaluated yet another selection from Javier Perianes; twelve of the Lyric Pieces coupled with his Harmonia Mundi recording of the Piano Concerto (HMC902205).  In the event, that’s a worthwhile recording but neither the concerto nor the solo pieces challenge Hough, whose very competitive recording of the concerto can be found on Hyperion CDA67824 (with Liszt Piano Concertos – DL News January 2012/2).  Stephen Hough has also just recorded the Grieg Cello Sonata with Stephen Isserlis (Hyperion CDA68079, with Mendelssohn and Hough’s own sonata).  Were it not for the very strong claims of Gilels and Andsnes this new recording would go to the top of the pile; as it is, it joins them there.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Dominy Clements

Track details
Arietta, Op.12/1 [1:09]
Vuggevise (Berceuse) Op.38/1 [2:33]
Elegi (Elegy) Op.38/6 [2:27]
Sommerfugl (Butterfly) Op.43/1 [1:44]
Ensom vandrer (Solitary traveller) Op.43/2 [1:41]
I hjemmet (In my native country) Op.43/3 [1:47]
Småfugl (Little bird) Op.43/4 [1:39]
Erotikk (Erotikon) Op.43/5 [2:23]
Til våren (To Spring) Op.43/6 [3:07]
Valse-impromptu, Op.47/1 [3:23]
Melodi (Melody) Op.47/3 [2:46]
Elegi (Elegy) Op.47/7 [3:11]
Trolltog (March of the trolls) Op.54/3 [3:00]
Notturno, Op.54/4 [3:54]
Klokkeklang (Bell ringing) Op.54/6 [3:31]
Hjemve (Homesickness) Op.57/6 [3:36]
Sylfide (Sylph) Op.62/1 [1:27]
Hjemad (Homeward) Op.62/6 [3:03]
Fra ungdomsdagene (From early years) Op.65/1 [4:47]
Salong (Salon) Op.65/4 [2:09]
Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen (Wedding day at Troldhaugen) Op.65/6 [5:58]
Bestemors menuett (Grandmother’s minuet) Op.68/2 [2:12]
For dine fötter (At your feet) Op.68/3 [3:11]
Bådnlåt (At the cradle) Op.68/5 [2:26]
Sommeraften (Summer evening) Op.71/2 [2:17]
Småtroll (Puck) Op.71/3 [1:55]
Efterklang (Remembrances) Op.71/7 [1:51]

 




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