Stephen Hough: Vida Breve

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“Vida breve” – life is short. Ah yes, and don’t we all know it!

But pianist Stephen Hough has crammed an improbable amount into his 59 years. Indeed, if there’s a piano artist in the UK today who deserves the accolade “polymath” it’s surely Hough; in addition to his much-in-demand concert appearances and illustrious recording career, he is well respected as a composer, commentator, writer and novelist.

Reminding us of his truly formidable pianism, Hough is back with a new recording on the Hyperion label, effectively a ‘recital-in-the-studio’ comprising virtuoso works by Bach/Busoni, Chopin, Liszt and Hough’s own Piano Sonata No.4 ‘Vida Breve’.

The leitmotif running through the programme is death, but when Hough sat down in front of the Yamaha CFX concert grand in St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town in December 2018 to make this recording, none knew that by the time of its release more than two years later, a global pandemic would have made the spectre of death a more imminent and vivid reality to so many.

If Hough’s choice of programme didn’t immediately entice me, it’s still more to his credit that in a month that saw several exceptional CD releases, Vida Breve takes the title Recording of the Month. Let’s find out why…

Exalted and Inexhaustible Expression

“People are often reluctant to talk about death. But in the world of the arts – in painting literature and music – death has always been a central subject resulting in the most exalted and inexhaustible expression…”

So writes Hough, introducing his new album of pieces which share the theme of death “as part of their identity or inspiration”.

The full programme is:

  • Bach/Busoni: Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor
  • Chopin: Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.35
  • Liszt: Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
  • Liszt: Bagatelle sans tonalité
  • Busoni: Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen BV284
  • Hough: Piano Sonata No.4 ‘Vida Breve’
  • Trad/Hough: Arirang
  • Bach/Gounod/Hough: Méditation sur le premier prélude de piano de J S Bach ‘Ave Maria’

Busoni’s monolithic take on the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin Partita in D minor casts a sombre hue which subsequently dominates much of the album, while simultaneously providing a shop-window for Hough to showcase both virtuosity and musicality.

Here we witness piano mastery of unparalleled assurance, and while I’m generally not a fan of Busoni’s melodramatic approach to Bach, Hough’s performance is thoroughly convincing. For once, I have found myself cherishing this music.

Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2 follows, a work famously characterised by Robert Schumann as “four of his maddest children under the same roof”. It’s a Sonata that has confounded critics and analysts as much as it has delighted audiences. Certainly the first movement has knotty difficulties, but Hough makes compelling sense of it all.

Hough’s delivery of the Scherzo second movement begins with barely a pause, and with so slight a shift in tone that it seems an outgrowth of the first. Here I feel that Horowitz and Pogorelich are among the artists whose recordings convey the sprightly rhythms with more effervescence and élan. Hough is neither helped by the Yamaha sound nor the reverberant acoustic, the latter denying him a crisp articulation.

But if Hough’s playing in the first two movements leans towards the severe, the famous “Funeral March which follows is a more unequivocal success. Sandwiched between the outer sections, in which Hough superbly infuses the sombre with an elemental pathos, the lyrical simplicity of the central section is delivered with unutterable loveliness and almost unbearable poignancy.

Ah but the contrasts! The Finale, a flighty Presto dashed off by Hough in a mere 1’36” remains for me as unconvincing a conclusion as ever. Of course many will disagree, and perhaps Chopin is to be applauded for rebelling against a Beethovenian template. In any case, Hough’s playing here is certainly jaw-dropping!

“Our numbered breaths…”

These words, lifted from Claire Jackson’s excellent CD booklet note, nicely sum up the second half of the album:

“Our numbered breaths inspire an ongoing motivation to find meaning”.

Funérailles, probably composed to commemorate those who had died in the Hungarian uprising of 1848 (and published in his often mawkishly pious Harmonies poétiques et religieuses) has long seemed to me to epitomise those qualities of Liszt’s writing most loathed by his detractors.

Happily, Hough’s way with Liszt is utterly compelling, his muscular approach here wholly in keeping with the idiom. He succeeds where others in my view haven’t, giving the piece a more satisfying narrative than I had credited it with.

Further elevating the recital, the disconcertingly odd Bagatelle sans tonalité which follows is graced with a fleetness of touch that is beguiling, and which leads almost seamlessly to Busoni’s second appearance in Hough’s deft programming, this time with an operatic paraphrase.

The Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen is a stunning piece in every sense, compiling Bizet’s sumptuously melodic passages with an emotional intelligence that perfectly blends with the album’s theme. Life is sunny, stormy, peaceful, passionate, joyous… but oh, so short.

And so we come to the title-track of this concept album, the crux of the whole programme, and to my ears its highlight. Hough’s Piano Sonata No.4 ‘Vida Breve’, a single-movement work lasting 9’30”, was first performed in 2018. It is an immediately engaging composition, further rewarding multiple listens and study.

One might hear the inspiration of any number of Hough’s forebears here, which is hardly surprising given his encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire, but the pianist-composer’s own voice speaks clearly throughout. Virtuosic, full of ripe chromaticism and polished counterpoint, here’s an addition to the repertoire to savour.

And while the thematic material might have proved melancholy, for me this a piece which celebrates life more than it anticipates death, the spending of an energy whose fragility isn’t apparent until the final, unexpected moment.


“The final piece…”

“Death: the only certainty in every life, the final piece on everyone’s recital programme. Ah, but what about the encores?”

Stephen Hough

Completing an album/recital which has been at times coruscating, at times eviscerating, Hough soothes us with two valedictory encores.

First, there’s his own miniature version of the popular Korean folk song Arirang, a wistful treasure if ever there was one. And should further solace be needed, Hough signs off with a sublime reworking of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, never more beautifully played than here.

photo: Grant Hiroshima

Last Writes…

So finally, what is it that makes this album so truly special? In short, Vida Breve is one of those achievements that is “more than the sum of its parts”.

As a recital, the programming is ultimately inspired, Hough’s didactic approach shining light on the many wonders of these pieces: his performance is rarely less than superb; his capacity for finding sense where it is elusive is seemingly unending.

But it is as an experience, even an event, that this album is ultimately not to be missed. Coming now, after a year in which the unexpected pleasures of the recital hall have mostly been off-limits, Vida Breve is more than simply a reminder of a superb concert artist, or of the power of the best piano music.

Vida Breve is a reminder that, however short its duration, life goes on. Cherish this album for all that it is: truly a vessel for “the most exalted and inexhaustible expression“.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.