PROGRAM NOTES: STEPHEN HOUGH
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes, Op. 27
The nocturnes are Chopin’s most intimate and personal utterances. Some are wistful, some reflective, some melancholy, some faintly troubled and some serenely joyful. All are sensuously beautiful, suffused with elegance and deeply poetic impulses. During Chopin’s lifetime they were his most popular pieces. Twenty-one survive, the first written when he was seventeen, the last three years before his death. As the title implies, they are suggestive – faintly or strongly as the case may be – of some aspect of dusk, evening, twilight or the dark night and associative emotions.
The two contrasting nocturnes of Op. 27 are enharmonically related (C sharp minor and D flat major). As biographer Jim Samson points out, their accompaniment patterns are wider in range than the composer’s earlier broken-chord patterns. No. 1– dark, troubled and somber – is clearly in ternary form (ABA), with a central episode that speaks of triumph and grandeur only to lapse back to the morose opening material. No. 2 has been called the most voluptuous of the nocturnes. It, too, offers a melody of great beauty, but rather than evoking an aria, it resembles more an operatic duet. More often than not the theme is presented in those parallel thirds or sixths so beloved of the Italian opera composers, and even includes examples of fioriture (decorative filigree).
Johannes Brahms: Piano sonata no. 3 in F minor, Op. 5
“Beaten out of steel by cyclopean hands,” “Promethean strength of aspiration,” and “heaven-storming” are just some of the descriptions called forth by the virile outburst that opens Brahms’ longest work for solo piano, composed in 1853 when he was just twenty. Boldness, youthful fire and sonorities of orchestral proportions alternate with intimate meditations, tender dialogues and ardent lyricism in a grand edifice of unassailable musical logic. Brahms proceeds to fashion the sonata-form opening movement with the utmost economy of means, transforming and sculpting the highly malleable initial fragment into an astonishing world of shapes, characters and moods.
Aside from its grandly spacious design, the sonata boasts other special features. Its second movement describes in tone a poetic vision that is inscribed at the top of the page: “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture.” The Scherzo returns us to the bold, assertive world of the first movement. Wide leaps, thundering octaves and the full range of the keyboard give it an exuberant, even epic quality. The Intermezzo represents still another novel element in the sonata. Subtitled Rückblick (backward glance), it serves both as a point of symmetry in the sonata’s overall design and as a programmatic reinterpretation of an earlier movement (the second). The air of heroic struggle resumes in the Finale, which follows without a break. In free rondo form, Brahms takes us on a vast musical journey, incorporating darkly mysterious murmurings, seething turbulence, dramatic outbursts and a chorale-like message of hope, to a triumphant conclusion.
Stephen Hough: Piano sonata no. 2
The subtitle for my 2nd Piano sonata, ‘notturno luminoso’, suggests many images: the reflection of the moon on a calm lake perhaps, or stars across a restful sky. But this piece is about a different kind of night and a different kind of light: the brightness of a brash city in the hours of darkness; the loneliness of pre-morning; sleeplessness and the dull glow of the alarm clock’s unmoving hours; the irrational fears or the disturbing dreams which are only darkened by the harsh glare of a suspended, dusty light bulb. But also suggested are nighttime’s heightened emotions: its mysticism, its magic, its imaginative possibilities.
The Sonata’s form is ABA and there are three musical ideas: one based on sharps (brightness), one based on flats (darkness), and one based on naturals (white notes) representing a kind of blank irrationality. The piece opens clangorously, its bold, assertive theme – sharps piled upon sharps – separated by small cadenzas. Yearning and hesitating to reach a cadence it finally stumbles into the B section where all accidentals are suddenly bleached away in a whiteout. Extremes of pitch and dynamics splatter sound across the keyboard until an arpeggio figure in the bass gathers rhythmic momentum and leads to the ‘flat’ musical idea, jarring in its romantic juxtaposition to what has gone before.
This whole B section is made up of a collision, a tossing and turning, between the two tonalities of flats and naturals, interrupting each other with impatience until the whiteout material spins up into the stratosphere, a whirlwind in the upper octaves of the piano. Under this blizzard we hear the theme from the beginning of the piece, firstly in purest, brilliant C major in the treble, then, after it subsides to pianissimo, in a snarl of dissonance in the extreme bass of the instrument. The music stops … and then, for the first time, we hear the full statement of the ‘flat’ material, Andante Lamentoso. The music’s sorrow increases with wave after wave of romantic ardour, deliberately risking overkill and discomfort.
At its climax the music halts twice at a precipice then tumbles into the recapitulation, the opening theme now in white-note tonality and unrecognizably spotted across the keyboard. As this peters out we hear the same theme but now with warm, gentle, romantic harmonies. A final build-up to an exact repetition of the opening of the piece is blended with material from the B section and, in the last bar, in a final wild scream, we hear all three tonalities together for a blinding second-long flash, brighter than noon, before the final soft chord closes the curtain on these night visions.
- Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough’s Piano sonata No. 2 (notturno luminoso) is a joint commission with funds generously supplied by Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham; The Schubert Club, St. Paul, Minnesota; Singapore International Piano Festival; Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts; and the Vancouver Recital Society. It was given its premiere by the composer at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts, on October 9, 2012.
Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9
Carnaval consists of 22 musical vignettes, all constructed from three tiny motifs whose notes are derived from the name of a little German town, Asch. (Today it is Aš, just over the border in the Czech Republic, near Bayreuth, Germany). This was where Schumann’s current flame, Ernestine von Fricken, came from. Matters progressed to the point where Schumann and Ernestine became engaged in December of 1834. That month, Schumann began writing the music that he eventually entitled Carnaval.
As any student of music history knows, Schumann jilted Ernestine in favor of Clara Wieck. But for the moment, the 24-year-old composer was infatuated with Ernestine. He discovered that the four letters of Ernestine’s birthplace, Asch, were also in his own name. (In German terms, S=Es (E flat), and H=B natural.) The autobiographical element goes further. Characters from Schumann’s life – both real and imagined – are portrayed, including his wife-to-be Clara (“Chiarina”), Ernestine (“Estrella”), Chopin and Paganini. Then there are the two aspects of Schumann’s musical personality: the quiet dreamer as reflected in Eusebius, and the passionate intensity of Florestan. Figures from the commedia dell’arte of Italian carnivals make appearances: Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Columbine. Every piece in Carnaval, except the “Préambule”, is based on an ASCH motif, which usually appears at the opening and is then developed in ways both obvious and obscure. However, two years after completing Carnaval, Schumann told his colleague Ignaz Moscheles that he was more interested in the “soul-states” conjured up by the music – the emotions and moods – than in programmatic associations of the movement titles.
Program notes for Chopin, Brahms and Schumann by Robert Markow, 2012.