Stephen's Hough French Album is anything but a national stereotype. There are welcome hints of long evenings, glasses of wine and laissez faire, but Hough regularly gives us a dose of acid and the glimmer of steel. From the swaggering but muscular Bach arrangements by Alfred Cortot to Liszt's Réminiscences de La juive, this is a dazzling showcase of pianism, sans frontières.
Cortot was Swiss, Liszt was a Hungarian, the cover image on the CD is an English painting of a Saxon retreat and Hough is British born. Yet despite the geographic plurality of this 'French' album, the whole thing is united by a notably Gallic sense of class and swagger. Hough's Bach has breathless lines and the fresh attack of improvisation. More surprising is the fluid transition into a stream of works by Fauré. Sensual, warm, Hough has programmed a beautiful sequence of keys leading to ever more capricious harmonic terrain. Ravel's Alborada del gracioso finally cuts through, adding a dash of lemon juice.
After such flashy precision, Hough gives a caring touch to miniatures by Massenet, Chabrier and Poulenc. Water-droplet placement of bass notes, an erotic blooms in the melody line and seamless cantabile playing make for a potent heart to the disc. Alkan's La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer then undercuts their warmth with an eerie frisson.
Hough's own arrangement of the 'Pizzicati' from Delibes' Sylvia provides a deft balance of the racy and the refined, before Liszt's muscular 'Fantasie brillante' takes over. Hough describes the disc as 'a sort of musical dessert trolley'. There's enough sugar to sate the sweetest tooth, but a lot more besides.