by James Holden
Stephen Hough’s recording of Liszt, ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans le solitude’, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/III on the CD Rhapsodie espagnole; Mephisto Waltz; Bénédiction de Dieu released on Virgin as 724356112926.
There are moments when the piano ceases to sound like a box full of hammers being thrown against metal. It ceases to be a blacksmith’s instrument, all anvil-struck notes, all blows and impact.
Stephen Hough’s performance of Liszt’s ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’ is one such moment.
I first heard this recording when I was still relatively unversed in the nineteenth-century piano repertoire. I had listened to some Chopin and knew a few of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.I wasn’t familiar with anything by Schumann and knew no Thalberg, Alkan or work by any of the other virtuosos.What little I knew of Liszt I had learnt from reading, and not least from those references to him in Proust.
Like so many other happy cultural discoveries, I first borrowed the CD on which this recording is to be found from the local library (Barnsley). It was there on the racks with the other discs, compilations, popular classics, opera box sets and the like. Stephen Hough, Liszt: Rhapsodie espagnole; Mephisto Waltz; Bénédiction de Dieu.I turned it over, looked at the track listing on the back, weighed it up and then walked it to the desk. I thought, ‘Why not?’
The love I immediately felt for the ‘Bénédiction’ made me a confirmed musical Romantic.There is something in its combination of simple melody and complex accompaniment that, from the very first notes, seems to care for me, the listener, and seeks to protect me. This is not just music to love but music by which one is loved. I’ve only ever had this same feeling with a few other recordings, including Björk’s song ‘Undo’ from her 2001 album Vespertine.
Under Hough’s hands, Liszt’s notes spread outwards; they diffuse themselves. There is nothing struck here, or so it seems, nothing metallic. All is radiated.
Hough’s gestures respect both the work’s grandeur and the composer’s profound religiosity whilst never straining for emotion or effect. Consider, for example,the moment when the right hand part is extended by a series of arpeggios (the passage marked ‘poco a poco animato il Tempo’ on the score). The upper notes seem to open out of the main melodic material, as though the chord was always already there, in the tune, and has only now risen to an audible volume.What great touch on the keyboard; what pedal control!
No other performance of the ‘Bénédiction’ has affected me in quite the same manner. Leslie Howard’s recording of it for Hyperion is undoubtedly brilliant but its brilliance is that of the bright midday sun reflected off of polished stone surfaces. It’s a little too insistent, too sharp edged, a performance whose volume and clarity causes the overall effect to be lost. The more Howard makes things visible the harder it is to see the work. I own a recording of Claudio Arrau playing this piece that is, by contrast, seemingly formed of those reflective stone surfaces themselves. It gives the impression of blocks of notes being moved into place. The Andante is especially hard, too clearly delineated, too marked in outline.
For all its wavering poetry, Hough’s performance is unwaveringly certain of the work’s coherence. As the piece stretches out to over seventeen minutes this is very welcome – essential, even. To take some examples: we can sense the connection between the partial melody in bars 44-49 and that in the later ‘quasi Preludio’ passage; and at the end of that same Preludio, just before the return of the main melodic material, Hough calls our attention to the communication between the hands, the passing backwards and forwards of the notes. In the Coda we can feel everything combine in one final, calm cadence.
Hough’s recording has affected my own playing. I’m only an enthusiastic amateur at best and doubt that I’ll ever be able to play the ‘Bénédiction’ properly and in full (I can play the comparatively simple Andante and quasi Preludio sections). However, my joy at listening to this recording did lead me to learn Liszt’s ‘Schlummerlied’, another work in F♯ major, one with a similar, albeit much simpler, repeating C♯-D♯ right hand figure. When I worked at this piece it was like working at a ‘Bénédiction’ in miniature, only one within my ability range.
As the piece ends, as the last chord dies away I have felt myself suspended, unwilling to speak or move, to intrude into the space created by Liszt and Hough.
Dr James Holden was born in Ashford and educated at Loughborough University. He graduated with his PhD in 2007. He is the author of, amongst other things, In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he posts on Twitter as @CulturalWriter
© James Holden 2014