Stephen Hough is good in French music – witness his award-winning set of the Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos. Now, at the centenary of the composer’s death, Hough gives us a full Debussy program. While always clear, his approach is not brittle or sharp-edged like that of Zimerman or Pollini, nor is it over-pedalled and muddy in an attempt to be impressionistic. Hough achieves a balance, getting the best of both worlds.
Where he shines is in finding the individual essence of a piece. Pagodes is coolly detached, like one of those mountains arising from the mist in a Japanese painting. By contrast, he brings a rustic edge to the textures of L’Isle Joyeuse. Where many treat this piece as a virtuoso exercise, Hough peoples the island with authentic peasants through his witty rhythmic pointing. In the languid salon waltz La Plus Que Lent, he taps into an authentic tone using subtle rubato, yet doesn’t allow the languor to linger. In The Golliwog’s Cakewalk from Children’s Corner, he neither strives too hard to be jazzy, nor does he seem awkward handling the ragtime inflections like some European pianists.
Competition is fierce in this music. Nobody clarifies the dynamic layers of Reflets dans l’Eau like the incomparable Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and the late Zoltán Kocsis’s recordings of both books of Images should not be forgotten either. Even so, among recent Debussy discs, Hough stands head and shoulders above the rest.