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Dreamy keyboardists

by Tim Pfaff

Dreamy keyboardists

For all we've written about two great gay keyboard artists, pianist Stephen Hough and harpsichordist Christophe Rousset, the fact is that we've skated over their recorded output. While both are extraordinarily active as performing musicians (and Hough as a composer, painter and writer), they also spend great amounts of time in the recording studio, with reliably remarkable results.

As is most always the case, both have new CDs out, and we call attention to them because they are so deeply personal for both musicians that they're testaments. Both see recording as an essential part of their work, a vital tributary in the great torrent of activity. It has been their good fortune - or perhaps just their justifiable insistence - they've been blessed with unusually fine engineering on their latest.

Hough's "Dream Album" (Hyperion) is just that, in several senses. It is a collection of 27 pieces by a wide range of composers that one would normally hear mostly as encores, and have figured as Hough's personal favorites. And yes, there's something dreamy about all the pieces, most of which are transcriptions, many of those by Hough - and four Hough originals, two of which are from an ongoing set of tender, rambunctious pieces he has written for his now-partner.

Programming music this diverse is an art in itself, and Hough has been perfecting that over the years. This is not the first time we're treated to rarities by Frederic Mompou and Cecile Chaminade, among others, but Hough's abiding affection for them makes listening to them both individually and in sequence a real pleasure. One rifles the vocabulary about dreams to find the word that characterizes his playing on this disc overall. Delicate, fine-grained and evanescently beautiful as most of them are, they're imposing in the way vivid dreams alone can be.

There's no holding back on the virtuosity. Two of Liszt's "Transcendental Etudes," the "Harmonies du soir" and the unnamed 10th in F minor, make arresting early appearances, settling any doubt about how substantive this recital is. But no matter the fare or the particular burdens it places on the pianist, Hough is out to entertain, and this time he's fearless in the deployment of a quality eclipsed by his brainy virtuosity: charm.

It's the kind of mixed program I normally resist, because they're usually unabashed about the pianism and slighting of the music. I don't mind my mind wandering, but I hate having it pulled around. But Hough so completely supplies the concentration that this is playing you can relax into.

Chaminade's "Scarf Dance" sits atop a large stack of her character pieces that were everyday home-piano favorites before there were recordings, and for her Hough conjures the living room rather than the concert hall. Mompou's "Jeune filles aux jardin" is the first piece Hough played and a favorite encore, and a delectable conclusion to the disc.

Christophe Rousset broke onto the scene a quarter-century ago as a harpsichordist of uncommon musicality, verve and good looks. Recordings-wise, his work is now mostly with his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, and as often as not in complete operas of signal historical significance if scant modern representation. It feels criminal to say of his new recording of Lully's "Alceste," the latest offering in his traversal of the gay 17th-century composer's theater works, merely that it's the greatest of them.

His first solo recordings were with Harmonia Mundi, and he's back with the firm with a superb two-disc set of suites by Louis Couperin. The elder Couperin was as distinctive a voice among his contemporaries as was Lully, and his music is of such striking individuality that it is currently making a startling comeback, nowhere more than here.

Rousset has devised enthralling sets of pieces Louis Couperin intended as suites. Lacking autographs, the order of the movements is left to the performer. Harmonia Mundi's recording triangulates the listener somewhere between Rousset's keen mind and his discriminating ears. He plays an exceedingly rare instrument, made by the Flemish-French builder Ionnes Couchet in 1652, restored in France in 1701, and now in the Stradivari Collection of the Musee de la Musique in Paris, an instrument ideal for this repertoire.

Rousset has commented on the degree to which, contrary to popular misconception, the player's touch affects the sonorities of the harpsichord, noting that he found it more robust on the second day of recording - as I read it, as if they woke each other up having dreamed of one another overnight. The rapport is complete and consuming, the imagination and freedom of the playing supreme, the music itself transfixing - essential Rousset in repertoire he was born to play.

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