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I must confess that I was not very familiar with Hough's playing and for each of the sets of final Brahms pieces there is quite a crowded field. What immediately struck me was Hough's ability to get to the heart of these pieces and capture their sudden changes in mood and character. I was particularly struck by the opus 119 set. The final uttering of Brahms. Hough creates a fantastic kaleidoscope of rhythm and colour along with intimate mellowness and defiance all richly held together by his wonderful musicianship. I keep putting the disc on just to listen to a couple of the pieces but invariably land up listening to the whole disc. Hough plays these pieces on a Yamaha piano. He avoids the bright top register so often found on a Steinway. Hence you hear a slightly more rounded and darker richer sound which entirely suits these pieces. A wonderful disc.
Hough does not plung the emotional depths of some of his predecessors, instead presenting beautifully phrased, light textured performances of rare unaffected luminosity. The overriding effect is of seductive, dreamlike yearning rather than abject sadness. This works well for me, except for the op117 'lullabies of sadness' which fail to engage me in the way Lupu, for example, does with his slower tempi. However, Hough's playing of the mercurial Op116 is exquisite and deserves special mention. For example, for me he is unsurpassed in the magical charm of the E major Intermezzo. He also, thankfully, plays the heroic E flat middle section of the Capriccio in G minor at an appropriately expansive and broader pace, unlike some pianists who have less understanding than Hough of the spirit of Brahms. Though op116 was recorded 4 years earlier the sound throughout is uniformly excellent with a well focused instrument in a capacious soundstage. The only hint of a difference in time is the reversal of the keyboard. I prefer the way the later pieces were recorded with the upper registers to my right so I can imagine I'm sitting next to the pianist, or even playing as well as Hough myself - if only! Even though I already own several recordings of these pieces Hough's recording is a very welcome addition.
The music we listen to, is imbued with forebodings of death; some pieces are played piano or pianissimo. The first of the Op 119 pieces is saturated with descending thirds, each note sustained by the pianist's fingers until the chain is complete. In the second half the sequences of descending thirds overlap with each other, creating discords on a larger scale. 'It is teeming with dissonances', Brahms told Clara Schumann in May 1893. 'The little piece is exceptionally melancholy, and 'to be played very slowly' isn't saying enough. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritardando, as though one wanted to draw melancholy out of each and every one,'
In view of the above, one might assume that the music is depressing, but that would be wrong. The music is melancholy and lonely but has beautiful melodies and when the twenty miniature pieces that comprise it conclude in around seventy minutes, you regret that there is no more of it.
Stephen Hough has a deep insight into the character of the music and his rendition is masterly.
Despite the brevity of the pieces, they have structure and they are varied, but they are also connected and they have a unified whole.
The composer has written them to find consolation and he succeeds admirably not only for himself but also for the privileged listener.
Stephen Hough is one of the most truly sensitive pianists currently performing. His playing brings out the emotions of Brahm’s final works to wondrous effect , tears flow and one is taken on a journey of great reward.
Johannes Brahms - (1833-1897) - The Fonal Piano Pieces - Stephen Hough, pianist - HYPERION - TT: 69:08 - Fantasias, op. 116 - (1892) - I - (1) - D minor - Capriccio; II - (2) - A minor - Intermezzo; III - (3) - G minor - Capriccio; IV - (4) - E major - Intermezzo; V - (5) - Intermezzo; VI - (6) - E major - Intermezzo; VII - (7) - Capriccio; Intermezzos, op. 117 - (1892) - VIII - (1) - E-flat major - Andante moderato; IX - (2) - B-flat minor - Andante non troppo e con molto expressione; X - (3) - C-sharp minor - Andante con molto; Clavierstucke, op. 118 - (1892) - XI - (1) - A minor - Intermezzo; XII - (2) - A major - Intermezzo; XIII - (3) - G minor - Ballade; XIV - (4) - F minor - Intermezzo; XV - (5) - F major - Romance; XVI - (6) - E-flat minor - Intermezzo; Clavierstucke, op. 119 - (1893) - XVII - (1) - B minor - Intermezzo; - XVIII - (2) - E minor - Intermezzo; XIX - (3) - E minor; XX - (4) - E-flat major - Rhapsodie. As always with this sterling pianist, Stephen Hough, this glorious recital of the late piano compositions of Johannes Brahms is a true delight and wonderful addition to the Hyperion catalogue and AMAZON. All of these introspective pieces which many critics consider Brahms 'swan song' as death approached. The music is haunting in its dark and yet introspective melodies and harmonizations. Mr. Hough certainly has that rare quality of a lush, subtle, musical approach as his piano tone has so many piano (MP, P, PP and PPP) color palette qualities. Several of these compositions are played separately - (i.e. G minor Ballade from Clavierstuck, op. 118 and the E-flat major - Rhapsodie from op. 119) by other pianists; however, the complete here adds so much to Hough's talents and gifts as a sensitive performing piano virtuoso. The Steinway model D utilized in this sterling set is a wonderful example of the piano tuner's Art in voicing and tonal balance between its registers and adds so much to the wonderful color interpretations here.. The 15 page booklet which accompanies this recital has a really thoughtful and introspective preface as written by the artiste and the other excellent program notes in English, French and German as written by Mischa Dorrat makes for a perfect combination in research and biographical information regarding each composition as well as the biographical information concerning Brahms and his late in life thoughts on life and eath.
This is a masterful performance of Brahms's gorgeous late piano pieces, perhaps the best along with Arcady's CD of the same works, though Hough and Arcady have markedly different interpretations. Both are "Must Buys"