The Prince Consort - Other Love Songs - American Record Guide
Even though 33 of the 41 songs here are by Brahms, it seems the chief purpose was to supply an interesting context for Stephen Hough's new songs, written in 2010. The liner notes go into detail describing how Brahms's first set of waltzes comes from a spirit of optimism, while the second, coming after Brahms's one-sided infatuation with Julie Schumann (who married another), includes "witches, black gypsy eyes, poisoned arrows, roses, nightingales, and death". Hough's songs are placed between the two Brahms sets to bridge the gap, as it were. In fact, Hough was commissioned by Alisdair Hogarth to write this cycle for his Prince Consort as a companion for the Brahms waltzes. In Hough's words "I decided, for the sake of contrast, to avoid waltzes, and to avoid setting poems about romantic love between a man and a woman. Other Love Songs explore other kinds of love: and, as an odd symbol of this, the accompaniment is for three rather than four hands at one piano." The songs are quite fine: three are settings of poets of the Harlem Renaissance (Claude McKay and Langston Hughes); two are by AE Housman; the other poetry comes from Julian of Norwich (1342-c. 1416), Laurence Hope, and St John's Gospel! The style is largely neo-tonal (with tonal references but without traditional tonal grammar), and the songs make their excellent effect largely through the poignant poetry.
The Prince Consort comprises five singers (SATB plus countertenor) with Alisdair Hogarth as musical director and pianist. For the Brahms Hogarth is joined by Philip Fowke, while Hough joins Hogarth for his songs (though we don't know how the three hands are divided!). At any rate, the piano playing is impressive from beginning to end. The singers too are very accomplished, though I was not always pleased with the musical results. A lot of tempos are very quick, and the singers often sound "pressed". For me the Brahms needs more gemutlichkeit, more leisurely grace, a lighter touch. Everything, though, is competently done; and it is a pleasure to hear that Hough, already one of our best pianists, is a composer to be reckoned with.