Stephen Hough's French Album
Writing this in the summer heat of the Olympic opening ceremony, I have to remind myself that ‘into each life some rain must fall’. Stephen Hough’s superb and rightly acclaimed series of Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos is notable, among many other qualities, for its rhythmic control. So what happened here?
Praise be, Alborada del gracioso escapes intact: indeed, it’s a superlative performance by any standards, including repeated notes that turn me green with envy. But Ravel’s teacher Fauré fares much less well. Quite simply, rhythm is the problem. We know, from Fauré’s own piano recordings and testimonies from those who worked with him (Marguerite Long, Vlado Perlemuter, Magda Tagliaferro), that he was a stickler for firm tempos with no wide variations unless marked – as Perlemuter put it to me, ‘no extraordinary thing’. I am frankly aghast that a pianist of Hough’s transcendent ability and long experience should take it upon himself to invest these texts with dollops of rubato. The two opening pages of the glorious Sixth Nocturne must here include at least five different tempos. And why play the first two chords of the Fifth Barcarolle much more slowly than the following tempo? As for Debussy’s Clair de lune… Enough.
Finally, I do think we should be told that the undeniably sparkling performance of Liszt’s Réminiscences de ‘La juive’ is quite heavily cut and culminates in an invented series of chords that belong to 1936 rather than 1836. ‘Alors…’ and ‘Hélas!’