Altogether Edvard Grieg composed 66 Lyric Pieces, publishing them in 10 collections throughout his composing life, between 1867 and 1901. A mix of genre works, evocations and folksy nostalgia, they include some of the most charming and effective miniatures of 19th-century piano literature. While relatively few pianists record the whole collection, many, including Stephen Hough, have made their own selections. Hough selects 27 for this recording, playing them not in the order they were composed but ending, as so many sequences do, with the last piece of all, Remembrances (Op 71, No 7). Hough has also included several of the best known, such as Butterfly (Op 43, No 1), March of the Trolls (Op 54, No 3), and To Spring (Op 43, No 6).
His performances are wonderfully direct, without a trace of indulgence. All of the pieces are small-scale – the longest is Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (Op 65, No 6), which takes just under six minutes – but, as his playing suggests, that doesn’t mean the music needs to seem precious or fragile. The bright, sometimes spiky piano tone (a Yamaha, apparently) and the forthright way he tackles the faster numbers give a real robustness to some passages. The contrast with his quiet playing, every note perfectly placed and coloured, is superbly effective.
The benchmark for new versions of the Lyric Pieces remains the selection of 20 pieces Emil Gilels recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 1974. It’s a measure of how impressive much of Hough’s disc is that it invites comparisons with that all-time classic, though they aren’t direct ones.
Both pianists begin at the beginning with Arietta, the first of the Op 12 set, and end with Remembrances, but in between Gilels’s sequence is strictly chronological, and he appears to have gone out of his way to avoid the best-known pieces such as March of the Trolls and Wedding Day. Surprisingly, Gilels’s approach is also often much softer-edged, the contrasts less marked, the rhythms less pointed, so that what one sometimes most admires is the jewelled beauty of his playing. With Hough, the music always comes first.