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Schumann kreisleriana CDA68363
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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Arabeske in C major, Opus 18 (1839) [6:32]
Kreisleriana, Opus 16 (1838) [32:41]
Fantasie in C major, Opus 17 (1836) [30:53]
Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. 24-26 April 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA68363 [70:07]

My appreciation of Stephen Hough's handling of the Arabeske was slightly reduced by his hints of expressive freedom. Rubato is a very personal matter and it may easily become a distraction. I would not go so far as to say that Hough's is actually intrusive, but one has to ask whether it might become a little irritating on repetition -yet he is not lacking in poetry.

Hough begins Kreisleriana a little deliberately, momentarily detracting from the necessary impetuosity of this extraordinarily turbulent opening. I would select Intermezzo II (the final section of the second piece) to illustrate a point. This seems just too controlled and inclined towards the pristine. Spontaneity is lacking. I sometimes quote from the excellent BBC Music Guide to Schumann's Orchestral Music by Hans Gál, who writes: “Exuberance is certainly a most essential component … a cool, detached approach to his music is as impossible for the listener as for the performer. His soul is in every expressive phrase he shapes …” To say that this sums up Hough's approach would be to go too far, but it does convey what is problematic about his Schumann and I would choose any of several other pianists in preference. The seventh piece of Kreisleriana is executed with tremendous virtuosity, but then Hough's technical command is never in doubt. The key problem for me is that generally a kind of objectivity replaces the necessary emotional tension. 

While the clarity of Hough's playing is admirable, I find the Fantasie, as Hans Gál warns, too cool, even detached. Fantasy is a key quality in much of Schumann's music, and a title he used for several major works. Here, the lack of passion and impetuosity bothers me to the extent that I very much doubt that Hough is suited to this piece. There seems to be a lack of engagement and the emotional temperature is economical, consequently, a kind of dullness prevails. At times reflectiveness becomes dangerously close to doodling – giving me the impression of a calm run-through at home. I am disappointed to be writing this, as I am normally a fan of this pianist, but on the strength of these performances, he just does not sound like an instinctive interpreter of Schumann. It is all a little too polite and civilised, neat and tidy – deeply thoughtful - even over-thought - and considered, but unexciting. Orderliness is not a quality I would associate with Schumann. One has to be prepared to go wherever his vivid, quicksilver imagination takes him. On this occasion, the intellectual quality of Hough's musicianship has strayed into the clinical. Schumann is a difficult composer to interpret but his music needs, above all, ardour, passion and urgency, otherwise it is unsatisfying and unconvincing. Without these qualities it stubbornly refuses to take wing.

The booklet notes by Natasha Loges are excellent. To quote – re Kreisleriana - “[Schumann] understood how to create musical momentum through both rhythmic and harmonic instability; in faster passages, the lines tumble forward, pell-mell, like the legs of a thoroughbred racehorse going at full tilt ...” This more or less sums up the qualities which are missing from these performances.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

Previous review: David McDade

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