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“Mirabilis. The Music of Stephen Hough”
Sir Stephen Hough: Just as I am – Missa Mirabilis – Londinium Magnificat – Londinium Nunc dimittis – Ding Dong Merrily on High – December – Three Marian Hymns – O soft self-wounding pelican – Sonatina
Traditional: Danny Boy (arr. Hough)

James Orford (Organ), London Choral Sinfonia, Michael Waldron (Conductor)
Recorded at St John the Evangelist, Islington, London (17‑20 April 2023) – 75’17
Orchid Records ORC100256

The Economist lists Sir Stephen Hough as one of 20 top living polymaths. As Hough tells it, almost accidentally, or perhaps by the grace of a higher power, he is known as a colossus at the piano, and also a composer, poet, novelist, essayist and painter.

Sir Stephen, as he is now called, started his musical life singing. There was no piano in his childhood home. When he gained access to one at six years of age, he abandoned the voice. Yet he clearly has a feel for its possibilities. And he has a feel for the voice in combination with what Stravinsky called the monster of instruments, the organ.

How you feel the organ is complicated. Achieving breath is a seemingly miraculous feat. If Sir Stephen has problems giving the instrument a speaking and breathing voice, it is not apparent in his new recording on Orchid Records, “Mirabilis.”

While Sir Stephen’s compositions for piano and orchestra can be massive, loud, and even ribald, these are not qualities on display in this recording. Much of the music, both the choir’s and the organ’s, is restrained. Emotions evoked are not, however.

The centerpiece of this album is Sir Stephen’s Mass. And at its center is the Credo, which he found complicated at the start. It has few words. He decided instead to go for the heart of the matter, the subject of belief. He created an offering and response between the high voices and those of the lower registers. In the high registers, until the very end, belief is expressed whole-heartedly, in the one word, Credo. The questions about faith come from the bass. You feel the struggle as you listen. In the end, faith seems to lose. Nothing about Sir Stepehn’s faith is simple.

No one can describe the presentation of this Credo section better than the composer: “I set up this scenario between boy sopranos,” Hough explains, “the voices of innocence and childhood, with the men who may be more jaded and cynical about everything. So in that movement, the men never sing the words ‘I believe.’ They just sing all the clauses, as if by rote. The boys sing ‘Credo’ — ‘I believe’ — between all the clauses. And this interruption becomes initially just an encouragement, and by the end, total desperation, because the boys realize the men do not believe what they’re saying. And they are saying, You must believe, you must believe.”

The other four sections of the Mass offer a variety of relationships between the organ and choir voices. Before the Credo drama unfolds, Sir Stephen notes, “the Kyrie movement has introduced us to a gentler, less complex world of forgiveness, where the melodic and harmonic material is sweet and consoling. The Gloria, joyful in its outer sections, is based on a rising scale and a falling zigzag motive. The Sanctus and Benedictus aim to contrast the divine and the human – the angelic Holy, Holy, Holy is grand, vast, immense, whereas in the Benedictus God has become human and the music.”

The Agnus Dei takes the Credo motive and develops it in plaintive, unaccompanied chords. When the Lamb of God words appear for the third time the expected response is: Grant us peace. But instead of peace the organ begins an interlude of mounting agitation and desperation based on chromatically altered fragments of the opening vocal chords. As this passage reaches its highpoint, with still no sign of Dona nobis pacem the choir sings a fortissimo Agnus Dei to the music which had accompanied the baptism clause in the Credo. Finally, as a climax to the whole work, the Dona nobis pacem is sung. Calm now reigns. The piece ends musically as it began with the same melody of consolation as the Kyrie, a full circle embracing and healing.

After abandoning composing for decades, Sir Stephen began writing again and came up with four songs in an Advent cycle which are also on this recording. They are a cappella settings of poems celebrating the month from Advent to the New Year. “Hark the Herald” and “Silent Night” have old words and new music. “The Gate of the Year” is a solo song for tenor, comforting words broadcast on the radio by King George VI as the Second World War began its years of destruction.

The release also features two works for high voices: the Londinium Service, a setting of the Anglican evensong canticles in two languages, and seductively repetitive Three Marian Hymns. Hough ranges from the Aquinas-inspired O soft self-wounding pelican, to a passionate plea for mercy in Just as I am. Ding Dong Merrily on High is a joyous new setting of familiar words. The album closes with Sir Stephen’s transcription of Danny Boy. In his words, “No possibility to change this tune, or to forget it.”

This recording is packed with the delights we now expect from Sir Stephen, full of joy, of mystery and surprise.

Susan Hall




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