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Robert SCHUMANN ((1810-1856)
Arabeske, Op 18 (1839) [6:32]
Kreisleriana, Op 16 (1838) [32:41]
Fantasie in C major, Op 17 (1836) [30:53]
Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. 24-26 April 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed as a digital download from
HYPERION CDA68363 [70:06]

The sleeve note to this new release from Stephen Hough makes great play of the fact that the genesis of these three works lies in a crisis in the composer’s turbulent courtship of Clara Wieck. They make an excellent set and, whilst there are undoubtedly autobiographical elements, there is more to them than that. Schumann the composer might be said to contain too many multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, to be so simply contained. Schumann tended to adopt alter egos to help express this multifarious aspect of his character: the two most famous being Eusebius the introvert and Florestan the extrovert.

If in the issue of Eusebius and Florestan, Hough comes out firmly on the side of Eusebius that is not to say that he lacks virtuosity. The most successful single section on this disc is probably the middle movement of the Fantasie. In its closing pages Hough leaves all rivals trailing in his wake, making even the mighty Horowitz sound ungainly. What I especially liked about Hough’s handling of this movement was that, even here, Eusebius has the upper hand where most others pummel the listener into submission with mighty clods of chords. Hough never loses sight of the fact that this is poetic music.

Hough’s poetry is of a very different order from, say, Cortot’s (whose isn’t?). Whilst full of fantasy, it is also rather chaste where with Cortot there is also a sense of darker shadows and of madness in the wings. Hough’s poetry works best in the finale of the Fantasie and in the delicate chordal passage that closes that same work’s opening movement. Where I found it less convincing was in the phantasmagoria of Kreisleriana. Technique-wise Cortot can barely touch Hough but the older pianist brings greater scope to his vision of the whole in a work that can often seem to ramble and digress too often. The task isn’t just to bring out Florestan and Eusebius but to find a way to make them work together.

The opening movement of the Fantasie, for example, is full of gorgeous piano playing on this recording: subtle and refined. Yet compared to Horowitz live at the Carnegie Hall in 1965 there are moments when Hough lets the dramatic tension sag a little too much. This becomes more of an issue in Kreisleriana.

Both Cortot and Horowitz (particularly his later DG recording) bring more devilry to Schumann’s evocation of the wild world of ETA Hoffman’s kapellmeister. To my ears this is music that needs an element of old-fashioned egomaniac virtuoso. There will, of course, be those who loathe the whiff of incense and black mass that hangs around both of those grand old pianists and for such listeners Hough can be recommended without the slightest hesitation.

This is Hough’s second tilt at the Fantasie on record, having recorded it for Erato in 1989. Apart from much more generous sound, the performances are remarkably similar. There is a touch more delicate magic in the quieter moments in the new recording. In addition there is a modest tightening of the threads in the opening movement where the younger Hough allows himself space to rhapsodise a little. His approach to the middle movement has softened considerably and, as mentioned previously, all to the better in my opinion.

The piano sound is most agreeable and suits Hough’s approach perfectly. It is warm and ripe yet never lacks clarity. It is never hard or metallic sound.

All in all, this is a recording that shows Hough at his considerable best in terms of poetry and virtuosity and deserves to be considered alongside the very best in these often-recorded works.

David McDade

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