A Mozart Album

Stephen Hough (Hyperion CDA67598)

11 March 2008 3.5 stars

A Mozart AlbumCarrying on the series started with the two 'Piano Albums' released on Virgin first in the 1980s, Stephen Hough's 'A Mozart Album' differs from its predecessors first by focussing on one composer and second by mixing substantial original works by Mozart – the Fantasias K.475 and K.396/385f and the Sonata in B flat K.333 – with arrangements, transcriptions and hommages by Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858), Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948), Liszt (with a helping had from Busoni) and Hough himself.

Stylistically it certainly makes for a varied listen but I found the distinct break in the disc's programme potentially disturbing. On the one hand it persuades us to take Mozart's solo piano output seriously – backed up by a quotation from Alfred Brendel's essay on the subject in the booklet – and then seems to let us regress into an old-fashioned chocolate-box view of the composer as shown in the other composers' treatments of his work. However, with one exception, the pieces in the second half of the disc are finely crafted and reflect nothing but the greatest respect for the composer. And each work affords us a fascinating glimpse into the history of Mozart reception as seen through the eyes of successive composer-pianists.

Unsurprisingly, there is some truly excellent piano playing on display. Opening with the astonishing Fantasia in C minor K.475, Hough's Mozart is characterised by clarity, careful phrasing, economical use of the pedal and a crystalline touch. This means neither this work nor the earlier Fantasia in C minor K.396/385f, which was completed by Maximilian Stadler, has its burgeoning Romanticism over-egged; it is presented with a certain objectivity that allows the listener to marvel at its bold innovations without having them underlined didactically.

The Sonata in B flat is given a similarly well-turned account. Hough phrases with naturalness and although he's not afraid to bring out a line here or there, he avoids the mannerisms that some virtuosos seem to feel they need to bring to the music. The opening Allegro is performed with disarming straightforwardness and he brings a wonderful urgency to the development section. The Andante cantabile is flowing and the Allegretto grazioso lively and elegant. This is Mozart presented clearly, without intervention and all the more enjoyable for it.

The second half of the disc starts with Cramer's charming but brief 'Hommage à Mozart', an étude from his Op. 106, which gives us Mozart as filtered through an early Romantic sensibility, spiced up with a bit of timid chromaticism. As one would expect, it's performed with grace and easy technical command by Hough. Next comes Ignaz Friedman's arrangement of the Menuetto from Mozarts Devertimento K334. Here, the later composer seems to reflect the greater chronological distance between him and Mozart, casting him very much as the porcelain figure Brendel refers to: delicate, cool and a little fragile. There's a typically ingenious transformation of themes in the trio section, again delineated clearly and effortlessly by Hough.

Hough's own contribution, Three Mozart Transformations (after Poulenc), distils three slight works into an even more sophisticated concoction. Beautifully crafted pieces, they perhaps contain more the spirit of Poulenc than Mozart but are no less enjoyable for that, replete with the kind of humorous harmonic touches, 'wrong' note interjections and skipping lightness that are so typical of the French composer's piano writing.

After the delicacy and tastefulness of Cramer, Friedman and Hough, Liszt's Fantasia on two themes from Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro', reassembled and completed by Busoni, comes as a bit of a shock. This is not, it has to be said, one of Liszt's most subtle treatments of another composer's work and it isn't helped by the fact that it was left incomplete. Busoni cut out the music from Don Giovanni which it also originally contained, provided it with an ending, but, it seems, didn't really do much more to refine it. The result is a piece which is jam-packed with ingenious pianistic effects but which manages the astonishing feat of rendering the two Mozart melodies it treats – 'Non più andrai' and 'Voi che sapete' – almost banal.

Whereas the other arrangements took lesser works as their basis, the Liszt/Busoni goes right in with two of Mozart's greatest melodies; it's a great example of musical chutzpah which, unfortunately, isn't emulated in Hough's finely crafted, tasteful approach. I missed the kind of barnstorming, no-holds-barred virtuosity that can make this music really entertaining and make one forget its weaknesses. As it is, Hough's impeccably tasteful interpretation, for all its astonishing virtuosity, failed to convince me that this was anything by impeccably tasteless music.     

Fans of Stephen Hough have no cause to hesitate in buying this disc. The playing is never of anything less than the highest quality, finely recorded by Hyperion. I just wish the pianist could have let his hair down a bit more to bring the programme to what could have been a properly rousing conclusion.

By Hugo Shirley