Stephen Hough DebussyStephen Hough

Debussy

Images I & II, L’isle joyeuse, Estampes, La plus que lent, Children’s Corner

Hyperion, 2018

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2018 is the year of the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death and to mark the anniversary many leading artists have dedicated an album to the French composer. This is the case also of Stephen Hough’s Debussy, a wonderful collection of Debussy’s piano works including Images I & II, L’isle joyeuse, Estampes, La plus que lent and Children’s Corner.

Poetry and thoughtfulness are two equally significant features in Stephen Hough’s performance of Debussy’s works. Hough’s acknowledged skill as an expressive player transforms Debussy’s music in an endless cascade of shimmering sounds where every note is accurately considered and even the slightest detail has its precise meaning. Hough’s communicativeness, together with his dazzling technique and his wide display of technical brilliance, makes immediately clear his interpretation.

Sparkling colours and delicate atmospheres characterize the three pieces of the Estampes and the result is extremely suggestive. Pagodes, for example, is remarkable especially for its dynamics, thanks to which Hough really evokes the idea of the East implied by its music. La soirée dans Grenade, for its part, is characterized by a quiet and yet warm sound that brings to mind the languor of a Spanish evening. Jardins sous la pluie is on the contrary a vivacious piece, where the silvery sound of the piano echoes perfectly the sound of rain.

The Images I and II are the crowning achievement of Debussy. In these six pieces, a pianist gives free rein to the imagination and Hough does not miss this opportunity. He plays the Images in such a suggestive way that this music can be compared to a figurative art. Hough’s subtlety conjures up the idea of the situation described in the titles of each piece with precision and clearness, as in the case of Reflets dans l’eau, where the sound of the piano, which is characterized by liquidity also in other pieces of this collection, becomes sparkling as water. Hommage à Rameau is for its part an introspective and delightful piece that Hough plays with attention and abandonment. Mouvement – to complete the first group – is remarkable for its smooth sound.

The three pieces of Image II are equally charming than the previous ones, especially Cloches à travers les feuilles, where the silvery sound of the piano effectively echoes the bell tolling. Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is a thoughtful piece where Hough gives prominence to the silence between the notes even more than to the notes themselves. The last piece, Poisson d’or, is finally a return to scintillating sounds.

The six pieces of the suite Children’s Corner are more lightly but equally finely performed. There are here more amusing passages and they replace the previous “seriousness” with an inclination towards hilarity and joy. The best achievement belongs to the last piece, the funny Golliwogg’s cake-walk, where Hough emphasizes the humorous passages.

The last two works are the short pieces La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse, where Hough recapitulates the melancholic aspects and the vivacious and vibrant ones of his recording.

Stephen Hough’s Debussy is a recording made of many colours and moods. The great pianist is able to give prominence to them all with accuracy and attention, not disjoined from amazing technique and lyrical tension – all ingredients for an excellent, riveting performance.

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