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R Schumann: Arabeske; Kreisleriana; Fantasie

Stephen Hough (piano) (Hyperion)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

R Schumann
Arabeske; Kreisleriana; Fantasie
Stephen Hough (piano)
Hyperion CDA68363   69:26 mins

To call playing ‘intelligent’ might seem to imply that it’s all a bit dry and analytical. But as fans of Stephen Hough will know, that’s far from the case with this extraordinary pianist. Above all, he always gives the impression that he’s thought everything through and come up with something authentically fresh – no striking attitudes or provoking for the sake of it. The strange butterfly ‘logic’ of Arabeske feels like an inspired inspiration, yet it’s also seen very much whole. The sense of inspiration is multi-faceted: there are passages in Kreisleriana where the free-floating polyphony is handled so exquisitely that it’s like listening to a brilliant chamber group improvising rather than one solo musician, and the recording serves it wonderfully. The feeling of internal dialogue is masterly. Impressive, too, is the way – as in all great performances – this unique cycle seems to have been going on before the first note is sounded, and that the motion of the bizarre galloping final section is carrying on somewhere after the last note.

Among other things, Hough’s Fantasie leaves one with the feeling that this high point of German Romanticism is utterly unclassifiable. An astonishingly original piano sonata? A symphony for piano, comparable with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier? Something closer to a dream transcribed into notes? It’s all of those things, and yet none of them. The only thing I miss is the fragility that balances the brilliance – the quality a former editor of this magazine called its ‘tense, nervous life’. But if you’re still perplexed or simply unconvinced by Schumann this may be the recording to open the door on a unique imaginative world.

Stephen Johnson