Lately Stephen Hough has become more interested in compiling themed programs from various sources than producing single-composer discs. Fortunately his standing as a musician allows him to do so, and the results are always illuminating and satisfying. This new recital of nocturnally inclined works proves no exception.

While French pieces are left out altogether (such as perhaps Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit or Fauré’s Nocturnes), what is here is well chosen. Schumann provides the major part of the program, which opens with In der Nacht from his Fantasiestücke Op. 12. This turbulent nightscape is perfectly rendered. As ever, Hough’s technical assurance allows him to focus on conveying the meaning of the music, both in its pictorial aspect (a stormy night wind over the ocean) and concomitant emotional state. Both go hand in hand so closely in Schumann. 

Balancing this piece is the suite Carnaval, where Schumann presents a series of character studies as though seen at a masked ball (which would take place at night, of course). The 21 fleeting studies cover a variety of moods, but the overall impression is one of unbridled passion. Markings such as Vivo, Passionato, Anime and Presto abound. The challenges are many: specific character has to be delineated in each piece, considerable technical hurdles must be surmounted, yet the music demands impetuosity. Hough conveys all this stunningly in one of the most fully realised performances of this oft-recorded masterwork that I know.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 No 2, the Moonlight, is played in its entirety – not just the impressionistic first movement that gives the sonata it’s nickname. Hough is suitably subdued and atmospheric here, and vital in the presto agitato third movement. In his hands it too sounds like a night piece – perhaps a wild nocturnal ride – and a clear precursor to Schumann’s In der Nacht. In Chopin’s two Nocturnes Op. 27 he relishes the ruminative beauty of the writing. 

Hough’s own Sonata No 2, entitled Notturno luminoso, provides the centrepiece of the recital. In one 18-minute movement, it is based around a stringent chorale, initially punctuated by passages of starkly accented figuration. The major stylistic and harmonic influence is Messiaen. There is even an evocation of night birds, twittering at a manic fortissimo in the upper reaches of the treble over (at one point) massive clusters in the bass. A fascinating addition to this superbly played program.

Limelight Editor’s Choice – Instrumental, October 2014

Stephen Hough’s In The Night is available from Hyperion Records, Thomas’, and Fish Fine Music

Limelight’s Clive Paget caught up with Stephen earlier this year ahead of his Australian tour. The eclectic pianist spoke of his career choices, Aussie citizenship and the compulsion to compose. Read the full interview here.