Stephen Hough Serves Up Gallic Treats on 'French Album'

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Stephen Hough describes his latest album of 17 French piano works as a musical dessert cart, and it arrives at our table laden with sweets and confections as well as a few surprises.

Hough, an English-born pianist, composer, transcriber and blogger known for his eclectic theme albums, harbors broad notions of what constitutes French music. Included are pieces by the Hungarian Liszt and the Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot along with works by Debussy, Faure, Chaminade, Poulenc, Massenet and other composers.

The album opens with Cortot’s transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and the Arioso from the F Minor Concerto, the latter played with a curvaceously Gallic rubato.

Faure is represented with four pieces, including a curiously unsettled Barcarolle No. 5, a daredevil Improvisation, written as a cunningly demanding sight-reading test for the Paris Conservatoire, and a rippling Impromptu No. 5.

Hough is similarly selective in choosing four Poulenc works. He glides through the wistful Melancolie, which contrasts nicely with a murmuring piece of the same name by Chabrier, and scampers through the Improvisation No. 8, which unfolds with a Prokofiev-like angularity over the course of just over a minute.

Beside Poulenc, Hough delivers an utterly direct and ravishing arrangement on Massenet's "Crepuscule," with its ecstatic vocal line, taken from the ballet L’histoire de Manon.

Of particular note is the inclusion of Charles-Valentin Alkan, who moved in exalted Parisian circles but was always something of an outsider, as a Jew in a society plagued by anti-Semitism. His 1847 Prelude No. 8 from Op. 31, “The Song of a Mad Woman by the Seashore” has an unsettling quality with its macabre melody and dirge accompaniment.

Debussy’s overly familiar Claire de lune is given a sinuous and mysterious reading, which flows into the Pizzicati from Delibes’ Sylvia ballet, and then the final blow-out, Liszt’s dazzling arrangement of melodies from Halévy’s opera La juive.

Stephen Hough's French Album
Stephen Hough, piano
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