Stephen Hough reviewed in Gramophone

Chopin – Complete Watlzes
Stephen Hough

Hyperion CDA67849

Not all major pianists play Chopin but many who do have expressed a good deal of themselves through the Waltzes. They reveal a lot about a player and are merciless, it has been said, in showing up the limitations of an interpreter’s personality, and not just in the rhythm department. Brilliance and allure are required, of course, and so are reflective, interior qualities. The many repeated sections in the Waltzes can derail even cultivated pianists, who may keep your attention for a while but who then become predictable. Once predictability sets in, you tend to feel there is no hope.

Chopin would have had a fit at the thought of us listening to his eight published Waltzes together on the trot, or the unpublished ones which follow them here. Once engaged with Stephen Hough, though, you will stick with him, I feel sure, and with increasing pleasure: less is not more but not enough, and a cumulative quality begins to build that one is reluctant to break. My admiration for him as an artist increases, too, as one senses how responsive he is to Chopin’s variety, in a corpus of music not generally recognised as being so various. The demand for a special kind of virtuosity, directed towards the natural exuberance of the dance, he meets here to perfection, and he meets another challenge which the merely accomplished virtuoso may not even be aware of: to use sound to command precise musical character.

In making sequences of my own through the tracks, I’ve been delighted by the rediscoveries I’ve made, and also by new pleasures found among the slighter, less complex waltzes that Chopin allowed to circulate but did not publish. The nine securely authenticated pieces immediately follow the published ones here, a further three of more doubtful provenance being added after that. As compositions, the nine may not be as sophisticated as the concert waltzes, but are no less characteristic of him, and Hough shows they repay treatment as detailed and thoughtful as the rest require. In many other versions they do not get it, however, the moderately paced pieces being played too slowly and infected with a generalised wistfulness or, worse still, languor. Another of Hough’s strengths is to be found in the shape and direction he gives all the Waltzes, and in the freshness of his tone of voice. He can charm and beguile, and be bold in his contrasts, but he gets on with it, and it is the music he gives us, with true sentiments, and not merely a take on received ideas.

And what a lovely sound he makes – on a Yamaha, excellently recorded in a concert-hall acoustic. In textural terms he is up to the minute with current thinking, accepting that the interpreter should make choices among the variants existing for some of these pieces, in the same spirit as Chopin created them. More freshness, again. The recital is rounded off with the most waltz-like of the Nocturnes, the E flat major, Op 9 No 2 – a nice touch.

Stephen Plaistow

Stephen Hough begins his Australian tour with a concert at the Hobart Town Hall on Monday 26 September 2011.

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