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ALBUM REVIEW Stephen Hough: Vida Breve

Masterclass from one of Britain's finest pianists

FOLLOWING on from his recording of Beethoven piano concertos, Stephen Hough’s new work is a concept album in which themes of life and death are explored in an  intellectual master class from one the Britain's finest pianists and abstract painting. As Hough is keen to point out, the image of a dead man hanging on a cross is arguably the foundational icon of Western culture.

Works for solo piano by JS Bach, Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, Frederic Chopin and Hough’s own compositions are the basis for this recital recording made at St Silas the Martyr Church in Kentish Town in London.

The album opens with JS Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D minor, arranged by the Italian composer, editor and writer Busoni. Thickly textured, bell-like patterns give the work a monumental feel that Hough explores with a contrasting and at times delicate approach.

It’s followed by Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, which was played at the composer’s funeral. Darkly ominous and majestic, the piece is nevertheless not without moments of light, shade and romance that Hough explores so well.

Liszt’s Funerailles from Harmonies poetiques et religieuses is a low-octave compositio. Darting over a sombre and over-riding brooding tone, the work was created to honour some of Liszt’s friends who died in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

His Bagatelle sans tonalite, composed in 1885 and also included on the album, demonstrates a sense of the composer’s desire to explore his avant-garde leanings, combined with a sense of other worldliness, with swirling right-hand triplets contrasting with simple pulsing left-hand bass lines.

Busoni’s composition Kammer-Fantasie uber Carmen takes the album into more uplifting territory, beginning with a twinkling kaleidoscope-like melody that is quickly reinvented in different octaves before a slow contemplative conclusion.

The centre piece of the album is Hough’s own Piano Sonata No 4 Vida Breve (Short Life). A nine-minute piece, it has a melancholic and introspective but melodic drive, starting with a sparse upper register refrain that becomes the heart of the composition.

Growing in complexity, it hints at a modern jazz sensibility, the main theme gradually moving down the keyboard before returning to the higher registers in the final moments.

The album closes with Bach’s and French 19th-century composer Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria. Arranged by Hough, it’s officially known as Meditation sur le premier prelude de piano de JS Bach and the musical setting of the Latin text contains one of the most memorable funeral melodies.

Quietly uplifting and hugely emotional, it offers a chance for reflection and prayer as Hough explores the composition’s notion of stillness and eternity.

In these angst-ridden times, a vital, important work and a full album of Hough’s latest compositions is eagerly anticipated.

Vida Breve is released on Hyperion.

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