It has become so common to see the Grieg and Schumann Concertos coupled together on CD that this Liszt - Grieg compilation comes as a surprise. The Grieg - Schumann combo makes a certain kind of sense, in that both concertos are in A Minor, primarily lyrical, and start with an orchestral hit followed by a cadenza-like passage for piano. But the Liszt - Grieg makes historical sense because Liszt was among the first to see this concerto before it was published, and was notably enthusiastic.
Critics tend to compare pianists with legendary elders (Volodos is the new Horowitz; Brendel was the new Schnabel, etc.). Stephen Hough reminds me not so much of any pianist as of a conductor: Arturo Toscanini. No, Hough is not temperamental like the Italian Maestro. But his approach to music interpretation seems to be to discard traditional tempo changes, rubatos, and the like (which Toscanini derided as "the last bad performance"), study the score as if it were being played for the first time, and make any interpretive decisions on that basis.
Hough's rendition of the Liszt E-flat Concerto effectively melds virtuoso fireworks in the outer movements, with melting poetry in the second. I've seldom heard those first movement octaves tossed off with such sharpness. Too often, I've heard pianists play the second movement flatly, passing time until they can move on to the "fun" parts. Not here - Hough makes it seem like we're encountering this music for the first time. The finale is given at a steadier tempo than customary, so the structure of the piece emerges clearly - not something Liszt often gets credit for. Those tricky repeated note passages are played to perfection, unlike Arthur Rubinstein's two recordings where they sound garbled. A note on the orchestra's contribution: it's nice to hear the triangle solo in proper perspective: discreet - not garish as in too many recordings.
In Hough's hands, the opening of A Major Concerto is epic, as if it springs directly from the Years of Pilgrimage, building to an enormous climax at movement's end. As with the first concerto, the lyrical second movement is given its due. For me, part of the secret of great music making is that it leads from note to note, phrase to phrase - taking the listener on an emotional journey. That's how Hough makes sense of a concerto that is too often the excuse for shallow virtuosity - rather than the musical virtuosity Hough brings to the fore.
Many have, and still do, treat the Grieg Concerto as "cheap stuff." Here, the lines of the first movement emerge clearly, thanks to Hough's sparing use of the sustaining pedal. The second movement is permeated with a sense of restrained longing, while the finale effectively melds the extroversion of the outer sections with the poetic central interlude. Hough's playing is backed up by particularly fine orchestral playing from the Bergen Philharmonic under Andrew Litton - this is the clearest string playing I've ever heard in this piece.
The sound is focused without being overly immediate, with an excellent balance between piano and orchestra.