At any rate, Stephen Hough's liner notes suggest that at the least he had a lot to do with choosing this `display' selection of his recorded work up until now. He finishes, for instance, with his own piano transcription of one of Franck's organ chorales, and he says of this item that if he had a favourite recording (he doesn't explicitly limit that to his own recordings) it would probably be this one. Also, if you look at the list of pieces at the back of the box, you may be puzzled why no track-numbers are given between 12 and 18. This turns out to be because tracks 12-17 consist of Stephen's own Suite Osmanthus. That together with his arrangement of a popular Taiwanese song are the two items that have not been issued previously, and it must be a fairly safe bet that not even his own compelling modesty led him to object to their inclusion.
Stephen Hough seems to be the highest-profile British classical piano player since our dear lamented John Ogdon. So far as I can tell, this is probably a fair verdict of critical opinion, although rather hard on Peter Donohoe, who in my opinion is greatly undervalued. I have heard him mainly in broadcasts, but the two of his cd's that I own, those of Hummel and York Bowen, are impressive. Hummel has been described by Pletnev as difficult technically, and Hough confirms this by calling the movement here `finger-busting'. In that case, Hough scores high marks for technical proficiency, but on the other hand that is only what we would expect these days. The young virtuosi of the hi-tech high-exposure era are now routinely required to exhibit infallible fingerwork reminiscent of Michelangeli, and that great player had a particularly low opinion of a whole generation of them for lack of individuality, as he perceived the matter.
It seems to me that Ogdon was on his way to attaining the distinctiveness that marks out my own half-dozen favourite pianists born in the 20th century, but that he fell ill tragically before he quite got there. In that case, how about Hough? His selection here is interesting and varied, but not what one might call adventurous. I have a recital by Cherkassky when he was well over 80 that easily outdoes Hough in that respect, and he is not even within sight of Ogdon (or even of Donohoe probably) if we use variety as a yardstick for comparison. However Michelangeli himself would finish at the bottom of the league if judged on that basis. His greatness comes not just from his prodigious fingers but from his unique and mesmerising personality. I think I need more time and opportunity to get to know Hough before I can make up my mind how I rate him in this sense. For the time being, he is the player who has everything - at one level.
Thinking of this `exhibition' disc just as a selection, it has a great deal to recommend it. The Weber you will find here is not Carl Maria von W but Ben (1916-79), an exponent of 12-note technique who escapes the strictures on such styles expressed by Hough in the liner note with his York Bowen disc. I was very pleased to hear something else by Mompou, whom I had previously known only from occasional airings by Michelangeli, of all ring-fenced recitalists. There is an unfinished piano sonata finale by the great unfinisher of them all, Schubert. I was not very keen on the way Hough handles the Brahms scherzo, a bit too affected in its gulping rhythmic hesitations for my liking, but the Hummel effort is terrific, and so is the Liszt polonaise if you like Liszt.
Most interesting, for me, is the very first item in the programme, the Chopin A flat ballade. I mentioned in passing and without naming them that there were half a dozen pianists born in the 20th century who seem to me to surpass all others through their towering individuality. They do not include Guiomar Novaes, and that is because she was not born in the 20th century. She did however participate as a teenager in a piano competition, and her adjudicators asked her to play the A flat ballade for them again, so struck had they been. These adjudicators were called Gabriel Faure and Claude Debussy, and I would have been of the same mind, based on her performance of the piece that I own. Again I ask - how about Hough? He is perfect, simply perfect in my opinion. However I did not rush to replay the piece, whereas when I first heard Novaes doing it I could not stop replaying it. You must get my general drift by now, and it may be that I am talking about a cultural and generational thing and not just about individual players. I like this disc greatly, I shall keep hearing it because I am so interested in this player, but - well, you get the general idea.