Escape into Reverie with Stephen Hough

Inveterate news junkies of the world, your way out has come. For at least one good hour of your otherwise doom-laden day, you have a reason to turn off Fox or CNN and drift on feathery clouds to a far sweeter place. Your exit has been most graciously supplied by pianist Stephen Hough—he of Stephen Hough's Dream Album—whose latest recorded achievement may well be hailed as the most engaging, charming, and delightful recording of the year... or even the decade.

Hough not only has a special fondness for the little gems of yesteryear; he is also gifted with the ability to imbue pieces that some might call schmaltz with the grace and charm that transform them into high art. Thus it may come as no surprise, at least to aficionados of the singers of the 1920s and '30s, that "Das alte Lied" (The old song), the second piece on this 27-track bouquet from UK's Hyperion label, was recorded in 1928 by the great Austrian tenor, Richard Tauber (1891–1948), whose ability to transform dreck into gold (and best-selling discs) was legendary.

Given that the album begins with Hough's own "Radetzky Waltz," which transforms Johann Strauss's "Radetzky March" into a waltz into paradise, you might think that the Dream Album is sheer escapism. While it can seem such, there is also no escaping the facts that "Das alte Lied" came from the pen of Hilda Löwi, a Jewish female composer who used the pen name of Henry Love and the pseudonym of Hilde Loewe to escape Austria for London in 1934, and that Tauber, whose father was Jewish, headed to London four years later.

But let's briefly close the curtain on sorry realities past and present. Let's instead savor Hough's gift of rubato, which transports to us a bygone era when musicians possessed an innate sense of when to move forward and when to linger. Let's also celebrate his velvet touch, which makes his Yamaha piano seem far less the percussive instrument that it is, especially in a recording (auditioned in 24/96 FLAC) where recording engineer Simon Eadon has strived to cushion the sound.

While in celebration mode, let us also enjoy Hough's ability to coax out the unique flavor of each piece of music while making them indelibly his own. Morsels by Julius Isserlis (grandfather of cellist Stephen Isserlis), Léon Fyodorovich Minkus, and Vassily Soloviev-Sedoi ("Moscow Nights") are as Russian sentimental as it gets. Two of Liszt's 12 Transcendental Etudes elicit Hough's all-out response, with the 11th, "Harmonies du soir," presented as an ultimate case romanticism in "excessis," Lightening his touch, Hough renders Albeniz's "Capricho Catalan," No 5 of España "6 hojas de album," Op.165 with quintessential dreamlike delicacy. Ponce's Intermezzo No.1 is all gentle heart-tugging; and two pieces by Dvorak are so melodic and charming that it's impossible not to smile.

Hough contributes a number of his own pieces in addition to the opening number. Some are quite short. I especially got a kick out of "Osmanthus Romp" and "Osmanthus Reverie," which he introduces thusly: "After meeting my now-partner for the first time I wrote him a little piece based on the letters of his name. It became the six pieces of Suite Osmanthus. [These] are two more pieces using the same material. The 'Romp' was once given a rude title by the actor David Hyde Pierce . . ." Given Hough's love, had he been born in Austria near the dawn of the 20th century—you might think as much, given his wholehearted embrace of music from days gone by—he might have either followed Löwi and Tauber out of Austria in the 1930s or not been around to share his music after WWII.

There's a lot of humor on this album, not the least in Hough's sly transformation of "Waltzing Matilda" into "Matilda's Rhumba." TThere are also many pieces that hark back to old radio broadcasts, eg, Elgar's "Salut d'Amour," Tate's Edwardian era "Somewhere a Voice is Calling," Chaminade's "Pas des Echarpes" (Escape Dance), and that Kathleen Ferrier favorite, the traditional "Blow the Wind Southerly." John Atkinson, along with many other Brits, will undoubtedly smile at both that and the sound of Coates's "By the Sleepy Lagoon," which has served as the theme music of BBC radio's Desert Island Discs program for over 75 years.

Hough ends the Dream Album with his own short "Lullaby" and Mompou's "Jeunes Filles au Jardin" (Young Girls in the Garden), the fifth of that composer's Scènes d'enfants (Children's Scenes). The latter was on the first record his family bought when he started to learn the piano. Which is another way of saying that this album is as much for the innocent child within us as it is for the adult who wishes to dream of happier and less threatening times, when bliss seemed not to be under lock and key.

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Dream On" ........... Aerosmith :-) ............

jimtavegia's picture

You make me spend money, but in a good way.

John Atkinson's picture
I bought this album a few weeks back. It's as good as Jason says. And the recording engineer, Simon Eadon, is an old associate of mine from Hi-Fi News listening tests in the late 1970s. He was with Decca back then.

And producer Andrew Keener is another associate from my Hi-Fi News days.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Axiom05's picture

Simon Eadon and Andrew Keener are among the best there are. They are doing a lot of the recording work for Hyperion these days.

volvic's picture

I own many Hyperion CD's and there has never been a dud among them, I believe this one is just as stellar. Thanks again, will purchase.

jimtavegia's picture

you know someone knows their craft and cares. The piano is hard to get right, but it was here.

Thanks,

Jim

Bogolu Haranath's picture

JVS is making us all poor :-) ............

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Richer in spirit...

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul, for the education of its virtue" ............ Plato :-) ........

Ortofan's picture

... excerpts (which they refer to as "extracts") from all of the tracks:
https://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68176
(Click on the beamed eighth notes following each track number.)
Also available is a pdf of the liner notes.

Allen Fant's picture

Richer in Spirit indeed! JVS
is this available on CD/SACD? Where can I purchase?

Ortofan's picture

... the only format is CD.

Currently available for $14.69 from Walmart.com, with free 2-day shipping.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Hi Allen,

Hyperlinks to one of the many online sites where you can obtain a recording are always available in my reviews. If the recording is available on SACD, I always say so.

Hyperion abandoned the SACD format years ago, and seems to confine hi-rez downloads of its titles to its own site. The main labels still issuing classical SACDs are BIS (PCM-derived), Pentatone (sometimes native DSD, sometimes PCM-derived), Channel Classics (native DSD), Challenge Classics (native DXD), 2L (native DXD so they can also issue in MQA), San Francisco Symphony Media (PCM-based except for the early ones of Mahler), LSO, Covello, and Reference Recordings (PCM-based). I am certain that I've left some out. Harmonia Mundi releases SACDs upon occasion. UMG has migrated to pure audio blu-ray (PCM-based) for its hi-rez releases; 2L's are also available in that format.

One big question is if more companies will begin to issue MQA CDs. The jury is definitely still out on that one. Meanwhile, I just discovered that a Deutsche Grammophon hi-rez recording of Andris Nelson's Shostakovich is streaming on Tidal in hi-rez MQA.

mmole's picture

"Huff" as in enough?
"How" as in bough?
"Hauff" as in cough?

Thanks.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture
mmole's picture

Thanks JVS.

I'm sensitive to pronunciation because I once lived on Beethoven Street in Binghamton, N.Y.

The locals pronounced it "BEE-thov-in.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

B flat, E flat and G flat walk into a bar ......... Bartender stopped them and said, we don't serve minors :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Do - Re - Mi" .......... Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music) :-) ............

ednazarko's picture

I have such a nightmare buying stuff from sites outside the US, like the DSD sites, or Qubuz. Always card declined, then I get a fraud alert text, have to get on a call and hold for a half hour (so that if there was a real fraud they'd be able to run up the totals) and then get to argue with a fraud team about how the site I'm trying to buy from is legitimate. (Do not try to explain DSD to the fraud team at your card company.) Then they say... OK, we've released the transaction. But then, the site doesn't know that. So I have to buy again... and then I get a fraud alert... and then I fill every glass in the house with ice and any liquor I can find...

It's why I own so little DSD. And why I've got a long list of things reviewed and previewed here that I run through on HDTracks from time to time to see if it's showed up there. I'm still foot stomping angry at not being able to get access to the Gershwin reviewed here...

If these sites would spend about an hour with their payment processor reps, they could get cleared so that 90% of transactions from Western economies go through without any friction.

Axiom05's picture

The only site that I have ever had a problem with was Spirit of Turtle. Never any issues with Hyperion or Native DSD. Yes, I am purchasing from the US.

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