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Briefly Noted: Hough's Late Chopin

available at Amazon
F. Chopin, Late Masterpieces,
S. Hough

(released on April 13, 2010)
Hyperion CDA67764 | 73'08"

Chopin's First Editions Online
Stephen Hough's contribution to the Chopin anniversary year, in 2010, was a survey of some of the music the composer wrote at the end of his life. (It has since been followed up by a similarly packaged recording of Chopin's waltzes.) In a fine program essay scholar Jeffrey Kallberg analyzes what one can possibly mean by the late style of Chopin, and it hinges on a questioning of the formal and musical assumptions the composer made earlier in his career. For example, Kallberg describes the Polonaise-Fantasy (A-flat major, op. 61) as a piece Chopin attempted to understand and analyze even as he was composing it. Hough captures it and similar works with fluid genre identities -- Chopin's last two nocturnes (op. 62), the Berceuse (op. 57), and the Barcarolle (op. 60) -- in all their extemporaneous freedom and hybridization of ideas. (See thoughts by Alex Ross on this album from the year it came out for another take on this.) Hough has alluring poetry in his rubato, but his approach wilts a little too much in the tubercular direction, leading me to prefer more robust interpretations like Marc-André Hamelin and Evgeny Kissin, to name some favorites. Hough's somewhat wan tendencies work best in the mazurkas with late opus numbers selected here: on those pieces, Kallberg notes that the supposed "exotic folk essence" of Chopin's mazurkas reflects Chopin's attempt to rediscover a mythic Poland beyond the salon mazurkas Chopin heard during his youth, what Kallberg calls Chopin's "invention of a sonic national image." The crackling quality of Hough's right-hand articulation is jarring at times, as in the Barcarolle, but that issue is tied up with the sound quality of this recording, reflecting an odd difference between treble and bass registers of the instrument (recorded in St. George's, Brandon Hill, in Bristol, engineering by Simon Eadon). Sealing the idiosyncratic nature of the disc, the cover photograph brings together the elements of a bizarre booklet note by Hough, combining thoughts on Chopin, Mark Rothko, and the history of the bowler hat.

Stephen Hough returns to the National Symphony Orchestra for three concerts beginning this evening (April 19 to 21), playing Rachmaninoff's first piano concerto (which he recorded with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra), with guest conductor Andrew Litton also conducting Frank Bridge's symphonic work The Sea and Edward Elgar's first symphony.

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