A New Reference Recording for the Chopin Nocturnes – Stephen Hough

First of all, sorry for my long absence, there was just too much going on in my day job. I even skipped my traditional section “reflections on the Gramophone awards”.

The Chopin Nocturnes

Which of the many works of Chopin are his true masterpiece? The Etudes, the Préludes, the Sonatas, Scherzi, or even the Mazurkas that Chopin cherished so much? As always, these things are impossible to judge objectively.

But I know which ones are my favourite: The Nocturnes. They are simple enough that even I with my very limited piano skills could try to play some of them (I’d butcher them…), but they have such a melodic charm and such an intimacy to them, that if I’d have to live with only one category of his works, this would be it. It is clearly inspired by Belcanto, and as I’ve written many times here, I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies.

Has Chopin invented the Nocturne? Almost certainly not, it is a much older category, and even the solo piano one was invented by Irish composer John Fields according to some musicologists.

But Chopin truly mastered this category, which by the way, unlike the Préludes and the Etudes, aren’t just one or two large collection of works, but actually a lot of smaller collections of 2-3 Nocturnes per opus.

So the way we listen to them today, as one end-to-end album experience, probably wasn’t something that a lot of people would have heard during Chopin’s lifetime, given that they were written over a period of nearly 20 years.

I’ve already written about my favourite version of the Nocturnes, in the legendary Supraphon recording by Ivan Moravec, which also features in my Top 10 Chopin albums and my 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I’ve also mentioned the other legendary version, by Maria-Joao Pires, have reviewed Fazil Say’s recent recording. Beyond Moravec and Pires, there are other legendary classics like Rubinstein obviously, Claudio Arrau, or Nelson Freire.

So I wasn’t really searching for yet another Nocturnes recording. But then I read that Stephen Hough had released on the Hyperion label.

Until recently, Stephen wasn’t even fully on my radar screen. I had heard his name as a great pianist, of course, but I hadn’t really listened to many of his recordings yet.

This is mainly due to the fact that Hyperion, his record label, still categorically refuses to be streamed anywhere. While I can understand their reluctance, given how little streaming revenues must mean to any classical label, it just really doesn’t help discovery.

Chopin: Noctures – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2021)

Chopin Noctures Stephen Hough Hyperion Records 2021 24/192

The first album that I truly appreciated Stephen Hough is his recording of a collection of works I particularly care about, Brahms’ Late Piano pieces. I already had several recordings of this that I considered to be my absolute references, including Volodos, but then I read several reviews of Stephen Hough’s recording, bought it blindly, and was blown away.

So when I read another outstanding review of this recording by Jed Distler on classicstoday.com, I just went ahead and shelled out the GBP26, without thinking too much.

I was glad I did. Very much like with the Brahms above, Hough just finds something new to say about these works that are so familiar, so often played, without ever feeling like he had to force himself to do something different (which was one of my issues with the recent Say recording).

The entire playing sounds so natural, light, and charming (in the most positive sense of the word), that when you listen to this you’re kind of wondering how these little masterpieces could ever have been played in a different way. Take one of my favourites, op. 37 No. 2. So deceivingly simple, it could be mistaken as a Children’s lullaby. But when you listen closely, in spite of all the apparent ease in which Hough takes this, you’ll see all the depth and complexity underlying this little gem of a song.

I’d go as far that if you buy only one classical piano album in 2021, this should be the one (And yes, I still plan to do my top albums of the year post in the coming days, this one is already set).

I should probably at some point add Hough to my Top 10 Favorite Pianists.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion)

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part III): Instrumental

You can find Part I (concerto) and part II (Baroque Vocal) of this blog post here and here

Instrumental

Again, one of my absolute favorite categories, and some beautiful gems this year.

Let’s get right into it:

Bach/Beethoven/Rzewski: Variations – Igor Levit (Sony 2015)

Igor Levit Bach Goldberg Variations Beethoven Diabelli Variations Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated Sony 2015

I’ve already reviewed this fantastic album, by one of the pianists I admire most these days. What else is there to say but “wow”, or 5 stars?

 

Brahms: The Complete Solo Piano Music vol. 3 – Jonathan Plowright (BIS 2016)

Brahms: The Complete Solo Piano Music, vol. 3 - Jonathan Plowright (BIS 2016)

I cannot really comment on this album very much, as BIS has a restriction on streaming albums for the first 6 months I believe, so I wasn’t able to hear more than 30 secs of each track, which really isn’t enough to review.

I must admit, that past releases from Plowright’s Brahms recordings (e.g. Sonata No. 3) were ok, but not so great that I was particularly motivated in purchasing this album blindly.

Plus, I’m not sure if Op. 21 no.2 and the Waltzes are essential Brahms (I love op. 76 and 118 though). Will check back when it frees up for streaming.

 

Grieg: Lyric Pieces – Stephen Hough

Grieg Lyric Pieces Stephen Hough Hyperion 2016

Hyperion is another one of the labels that refuses streaming, but unlike BIS not only for the first 6 months, but permanently. On the one hand, I get the point that artists make peanuts on streaming, so it is not something some labels want to endorse.

I must admit that even though I have a subscription to a lossless streaming services that let’s me listen to any album in full CD quality, when there’s something I really like I usually purchase the album anyhow. And in the few years I had access  to streaming, I got so used to being able to listen to an album fully before buying, that Hyperion is actually losing money with their policy on me. But I guess I’m rather the exception.

Long story short: again, only 30 secs samples available to me. Not enough to judge. First impression is quite positive though. I really like Grieg’s little gems so I may end up buying this anyhow.

 

Ravel: Complete Works For Solo Piano – Bertrand Chamayou

Ravel: Complete Works For Solo Piano - Bertrand Chamayou Erato 2016

This album was my surprise of the year.

As mentioned previously, the so-called French impressionists (Ravel and Debussy) are usually only partially my cup of tea. So I wasn’t particularly excited when this came out, by a young French pianist I’d never heard about.

But then this album received a Gramophone Editor’s Choice AND a Choc from Classica. This really is rarer than you’d think, as my two favorite classical magazines rarely agree (Classica was only lukewarm on the Brahms Plowright above, for example).

So I went and checked it out, and Erato nicely enough IS available for streaming.

And what can I say: I don’t see how you could play these works any more beautifully than what Chamayou does here. Just magic. Go and loose yourself in the magic of the opening Jeux d’eau, take the amazing Gaspard de la Nuit, or even simple stuff like the Haydn inspired Menuet, all is just perfect. Nothing is ever Kitsch or Too Much, this is painted with a very light brush, his style doesn’t remind me of the Impressionism of a Monet, but more of the Pointilism of a Seurat, if you get the analogy.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonatas for Solo Violon – Alina Ibragimowa (Hyperion 2016)

Ysaye: Sonatas for solo violin - Alina Ibragimova Hyperion 2016

Let’s make this one quick: I really like Ibragimova, don’t know a lot about Ysaÿe (beyond that he was a Belgian superstar). Thanks to Hyperion’s no streaming policy, this is not likely to change any time soon. I’ve read a lot of positive reviews about this elsewhere, so don’t let my ignorance scare you off.

 

Scarlatti (D): 18 Sonatas – Yevgeny Sudbin (BIS 2016)

Scarlatti: 18 Sonatas - Yevgeny Sudbin BIS 2016

And here we go again, BIS’ no streaming policy will stop me for another couple of months or so to listen to this album.

What I can say is that I’m a big fan of Sudbin, but my expertise on Scarlatti is rather light anyhow, so I wouldn’t take my judgment very seriously even if I had listened to the album.

Be warned, this album also received some “meh” reviews, it’s apparently not everybody’s cup of tea.

 

Conclusion?

You may complain, only two albums I properly bothered to comment about? Well, as a policy I rather shut up where I don’t know what I’m talking about or am unable to properly review.

But in any case, both the Levit and the Chamayou are such exceptional albums, that we’re already very well served here.

So, who will win? 2 days ago Gramophone announced the 3 finalists, namely Levit, Chamayou, and Sudbin.

My prediction: Chamayou will win the category, and I hope Levit will win the “Artist of the Year”, a public poll (I already voted for Mr. Levit, but votes are closed since end of July now).

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback!

 

You can find the albums here:

Levit: http://www.qobuz.com/fr-fr/album/bach-beethoven-rzewski-igor-levit/0886444998161

Brahms Plowright: http://www.eclassical.com/labels/bis/brahms-the-complete-solo-piano-music-iii.html

Grieg Hough: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68070

Ravel Chamayou: http://www.qobuz.com/fr-fr/album/ravel-complete-works-for-solo-piano-bertrand-chamayou/0825646026777

Ysaÿe Ibragimova: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA67993

Scarlatti Sudbin: http://www.eclassical.com/labels/bis/scarlatti-18-sonatas.html

 

 

 

 

 

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