Stephen Hough creates ‘many and varied beauties’ from Debussy’s piano works

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COMPOSERS: Debussy
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Debussy
WORKS: Estampes; Images I; Images II; Children’s Corner; La plus que lente; L’isle joyeuse
PERFORMER: Stephen Hough (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 68139

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Stephen Hough’s Debussy playing at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago left me dangling blissfully from cloud 30, never mind nine, so anticipation ran high for this album. And its beauties are many and varied. Whether it’s the gorgeous delicacy with which he orchestrates the different layers of sound in Estampes’ ‘Pagodes’, the louche sinuousness of La plus que lente (Debussy’s closest thing to a café waltz) or the tenderness of ‘The Little Shepherd’ in Children’s Corner, there’s no doubt that Hough is largely in his element here.

Nevertheless, on the third time through I was still asking myself why I didn’t love it quite enough. How is it that some of the melodic phrasing seems a bit over-stolid, that the colour palette is not as varied from piece to piece as it could be, that sometimes the pedalling seems a touch excessive, or that a few elements of L’isle joyeuse sound almost lumpy instead of silken? It is so very untypical of Hough that it seemed necessary to check the booklet – and lo and behold, he’s playing a Yamaha. Maybe it’s wrong to blame the tool instead of the craftsman. But pianos can make one heck of a difference to a musical result; it’s hard not to wonder if this choice is an experiment that, for this recording, doesn’t prove wholly successful. 

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Jessica Duchen