an aural repast
by Tim Pfaff
Stephen Hough's new French Album (Hyperion) starts with an audial prank. You put on the disc and out comes that most famous of Bach organ works (though of course disputes rage about whether it's really by Bach), the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, albeit sounding strange from the get-go. It's the piece as arranged by the Swiss-born French pianist Alfred Cortot, in household-name fame once the Horowitz of French pianists – and as further rearranged by Hough.
You're unlikely to mind what Cortot "does" to Bach, further in a luscious transcription of the Arioso from the Keyboard Concerto No. 5. Cortot was all about spontaneity and imagination in playing, and his artistry eschewed and lifted slavish devotion to the printed score. But what Cortot – and with him, Hough – does here in no way distorts the original with a frappe of originality, and what you get is Bach as you've never heard him, so clear and transparent are the textures.
Hough is not so unrepentant a trickster that his absorbing CD does not deliver on actual French music, played as stylishly as could be hoped. But throughout, the CD also capitalizes on this out master pianist's penchant for being, beyond one of the most virtuosic and incisively intelligent keyboard prestidigitators working the circuit today, a born entertainer bent on showing you a good time. Think Lang Lang with taste.
Then, too, he ends the CD with Liszt, by way of the 13-minute "Reminiscences de La juive: Fantasie brillante sur des motifs de l'opera de Halevy." Fromental Halevy's opera The Jewess had taken Paris by storm, and the young Liszt was intent on spinning a phantasmagoria out of tune snippets that were in everyone's ears at the time. It is, as Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited loved to say, "too delicious," the more so as played, kaleidoscopically, by Hough.
And even when Hough gets around to Ravel, it's the one-time recital favorite now virtually gone extinct in that habitat, "Alborada del gracioso," that he plays the spots off. It's one of the pieces the composer thought showed that he was in fact as much Basque as French.
But enough. The remaining baker's dozen pieces are as thoroughly French as can be, leaving you wishing, or reaching, for a snifter of absinthe. Hough himself referred to this program as "a sort of musical dessert trolley," and the superb liner notes are, pertinently, full of descriptive words usually reserved for more gustatory contexts.
With only three selections – "Melancolie," the "phantom ball" Nocturne No. 4, and the dazzling Improvisation No. 8 – Hough displays virtually the full expressive range of gay composer Francis Poulenc's writing for the instrument. Just before the Poulenc, Hough offers a taste of "Melancolie" as realized by Emmanuel Chabrier. Two more Hough arrangements – Massenet's "Crepuscule" and Leo Delibes' "Pizzicati" – bring us more from the masters of the 19th-century French stage, at once delicate and brilliant.
Nor does Hough shy away from French piano repertoire at its best known. Cecile Chaminade's "Automne," another one-time recital staple fallen to the budget axe, receives particularly tender treatment, and Debussy's "Clair de lune" – a piece with which the composer was once synonymous but that you might now go the whole Debussy Year without hearing – is infused with the requisite nocturnal otherworldliness, without, thanks to Hough's pellucid playing, giving you the vapors.
If you want to get pianophiles going, ask them who today's best Faure interpreter is. For my taste, the four works included here – the Sixth Nocturne, the Fifth Barcarolle, and an Impromptu and an Improvisation – declare that Hough is currently unmatched, not for an instant letting this fiendishly difficult music sound hard.
It's a big leap from the dessert trolley to the red-meat orgy of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie, but the Bay Area's robust Messiaen fan base will want to know that there is a new CD of this hardly under-recorded work that's a must-have and a contender for top of the pile. Hyperion's engineering is so superb that it's our good fortune that they got to train their mikes on a magisterial reading by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Juanjo Mena, a name you'll be hearing more of. It takes nothing less than a true believer to make this massive, 10-movement meditation on erotic love (which references Wagner's Tristan, no less) work, and Mena treats the score like the tablets brought down from the mountain.
No previous recording has made more notes of this dense-textured music audible. If you've been unclear what the ondes martenot is or sounds like, Cynthia Millar's trenchant spook-house sounds will clear that up. Pianist Steven Osborne (whom in my excitement I mistakenly called Richard Osborne in a recent review of his Beethoven Bagatelles) is all over the enormous piano part, and, as usual, at his best in the soft, transcendent music.