British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough has been known for solid performances of mainstream repertory and to a degree for compositions of his own. He has championed a few lesser-known composers, and here he tries something completely different: a set of largely unknown miniatures, some of which are his own. They are dreamlike enough in that they are sequenced to evoke a set of images, and to avoid big strokes that break the mood. In itself, that's nothing you might not hear on a dozen crossover albums on Classic FM, but in Hough's hands the effect is unique and entrancing. For one thing, the program is personal; he explains in his own notes his connections to some of these works. For another, his transcriptions, arrangements, and original compositions are all carefully measured to contribute to the overall effect. They are often playful in mood, putting, for example, new rhythmic twists on familiar pieces (sample Matilda's Rhumba) that set them in contrast to the intensely nostalgic mood of pieces like Vasily Solovyov-Sedoy's Moscow Nights, a Soviet-era popular song transcribed for piano. And again, although these pieces aren't technically difficult for the most part, the way Hough controls them all and directs them toward a common goal is not easily accomplished. In a way, Stephen Hough's Dream Album is a throwback: a pianist of a hundred years ago might have combined existing miniatures with new transcriptions and arrangements in this way. But it's a throwback of the best kind; the sheer appeal of programs like this was lost under the weight of modernist ambitions. And it includes the crucial element of freshness: Hough's own contributions are not merely imitations of older music but reinterpretations of it. This is one of the loveliest release you're likely to hear this year, and it's backed by Hyperion's usual fine sound from the Wyastone Estate concert hall.
Stephen Hough's Dream Album Review
by James Manheim
|Memories of Childhood, for piano, Op. 11|
|España, album leaves (6) for piano, Op. 165|
|Pieces (5) for piano ("The Trees"), Op. 75|