Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough's French Album

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One of the most imaginative pianists of his generation, Stephen Hough has recorded music across the spectrum, from the great concertos to character sketches, and he has often presented them on albums with appealing themes. In the case of Stephen Hough's French Album, he plays a selection of short pieces by Romantic and modern composers, including Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Emmanuel Chabrier, Jules Massenet, Francis Poulenc, Cécile Chaminade, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Claude Debussy, and Léo Delibes. The roster requires little explanation, for these are among the best-loved French composers for the piano, and Hough's affection for their music is readily apparent in his flashy and witty renditions. What's odd about this album, though, is the lead-off with J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor and the Arioso from the Harpsichord Concerto No. 5, as arranged by Swiss-born Alfred Cortot, and the closing track of Franz Liszt's Réminiscences de La Juive: Fantaisie brillante sur des motifs de l'opéra de Halévy. While the Liszt piece can be reconciled with the rest of the album on the grounds that this is the most practical way a pianist can include any music by Fromental Halévy, an important operatic composer of the early 19th century, the Bach/Cortot transcriptions seem out of left field. While Hough undoubtedly finds Cortot's treatment of these German classics to be refined and characteristically French, the point isn't easily grasped by listeners. Still, Hough's thoughtful interpretations and charming playing make the album work, so the eccentricities of the program become minor issues. Hyperion's reproduction is clean and crisp, so Hough's precise execution is easy to appreciate.

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