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Program Notes: Stephen Hough

 

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.

Stephen Says (Wednesday November 14)

Stephen Says: Naked men: what’s the problem? Stephen visits Vienna’s Leopold Gallery and muses, “it’s strange how we create artificial boundaries of tolerance.”

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Monday November 12)

Stephen Says: Arresting a Cold: an encounter with honey and the law

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Friday November 9)

Stephen Says: Ravel and Debussy are  “completely different animals.”

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Wednesday November 7)

Stephen Says: “… the most intricately tricky, frustratingly fiddly, accident-prone little beast I ever wasted hours learning in my youth.”

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Monday November 5)

 

Stephen Says: clean the keys!

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Friday November 2)

Stephen Says: There is only one way to comb through Saint-Saens hair-raising concerto… with a comb.

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Wednesday October 31)

 

Stephen Says: What’s a little vomit, compared to forgetting the music?

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

STEPHEN SAYS (Monday October 29)

English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger. As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our newest blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

So without further adieu, our first posting:

Stephen Says: “My ear trembles at the sound of a beautiful chord. It’s precisely the bending of meaning and familiarity which excites me – in words and in music.”

Click here to read the full Telegraph posting.

Program Notes: Marc-André Hamelin

 

Program Notes: Marc-André Hamelin

Alban Berg: Piano sonata, Op. 1

“Among the most auspicious Opus Ones ever written,” was Glenn Gould’s assessment of Alban Berg’s piano sonata. Berg wrote this work in 1907-08 while studying with Arnold Schönberg. Originally it was intended to have three movements but, after completing the first, Berg found that “for a long time nothing worthwhile occurred to me, whereupon Schoenberg remarked, “In that case, you have said everything there was to be said.”

Schönberg’s instincts were correct, for Berg’s fourteen-minute, one-movement sonata is indeed a totally unified dramatic event that speaks volumes with the utmost economy. In spite of the music’s modern sound, it is nevertheless grounded in the formal classical layout consisting of a repeated exposition, development and recapitulation. Although a principal subject (opening phrase) and a subordinate theme (possibly two subordinate themes, depending on how you regard Berg’s “developing variation” procedure) can be identified, it is more through tempo changes than through contrasting tonalities or moods that they are recognizable. The second theme is slower, the third slower still. The moment of greatest tension arrives registrally, dynamically and texturally at just about the midpoint, which Berg marks ffff. By the end, the listener has experienced a sense of fulfillment, a sense that Berg has indeed said everything there was to say, and that he has left, in Gould’s words again, “the impression of great peaks and lesser crests, calibrated as carefully and achieved as inevitably as in music of a more orthodox nature.”

 

Gabriel Fauré: Impromptu no. 2 in F minor, Op. 31; Barcarolle no. 3 in G flat major, Op. 42

Like Chopin, Fauré was basically a lyricist who excelled in small, intimate forms. For both, the piano was central to their mode of expression, and both excelled in harmonic sophistication and in advanced techniques of modulation.

The term impromptu implies something conceived on the spur of the moment, born of poetic fancy, giving less heed to structure and formal procedures than to delicacy of ornamentation and casual style. Nevertheless, Fauré’s five works in the genre, like Chopin’s, exhibit well-defined formal balance. The second (1883) is one of his most beloved and frequently heard piano pieces, written in the tarantella rhythm (a pulse of two triplets per bar in a rapidly swirling pattern). The third of Fauré’s thirteen barcarolles (1885) is filled with a sense of languor, but one spiked with piquant dissonances. The tonality weaves in and out between major and minor, while the delicate and pervasive ornaments to the melodic line caused the famous French pianist Marguerite Long to poetically remark that, in one instance, they “crown the theme like sea foam on the edge of a wave.”

 

Claude Debussy: Images, book 1; L’isle joyeuse

“I love pictures (images) almost as much as music,” Debussy once wrote. Hence, we find not only a great many sound pictures throughout his music, but no fewer than three groups of pieces actually entitled “Images,” each a triptych in itself: two for piano (1905 and 1907) and one for orchestra (1906-1912).

Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the water) represents one of the finest examples of musical Impressionism. Whole-tone scales, pentatonic scales, floating blocks of parallel chords, vague washes of tonal color, subtly blurred sonorities, long pedal-points and a new kind of “harmonic chemistry,” as Debussy called it, all are elements in the world of musical Impressionism. In the second piece, Debussy pays his respects to the eighteenth-century master Jean-Philippe Rameau. The choice of the sarabande (a slow, stately dance in triple meter) is in itself an act of homage to Rameau’s predilection for classic dance forms. Impish humor, gaiety and a sense of irony infuse Mouvement.

L’isle joyeuse (1904) ranks as one of Debussy’s most ambitious, sensual and dazzling piano works. It is sometimes regarded as a musical representation of Watteau’s Embarquement pour Cythère, for, like the painting, it is richly imbued with gaiety and animation.

 

Marc-André Hamelin: Variation on a Theme of Paganini

In the tradition of so many great pianists of the past (Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Rachmaninoff … ), Marc-André Hamelin the virtuoso is also a composer. To showcase his diabolical virtuosity, Hamelin wrote in 2011 a ten-minute series of variations based on the famous theme of Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other composers have also been stirred to this task, but none with greater panache and brilliance than Hamelin. Even the likes of Liszt and Rachmaninoff would surely blanch in face of the fiendishly difficult technical acrobatics found in Hamelin’s work. By turns, devilish, mischievous, playful, coy, mysterious and convulsive, it remains continuously fascinating. Hamelin himself concedes that it “breaks the mold; it constantly tries to push the envelope as far as what may be esthetically acceptable!”

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff: two Preludes; Piano sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36

In 1903, Rachmaninoff brought out a group of ten preludes (Op. 23) which, as one writer ventured, was an act of self-defense, an attempt to channel the overwhelming popularity of the C sharp minor prelude of 1892, into other, similar pieces. A further group of thirteen was published as Op. 32 in 1910. Each seeks to capture the essence of a mood through the elaboration of a specific figuration, motif, or rhythmic pattern. The G major Prelude is one of the most sublime, reposed and sheerly beautiful. “A feeling of tranquility dwells here,” writes biographer Max Harrison, “and this piece stands with the G-sharp minor prelude [the one we hear next on Mr. Hamelin’s program] as the purest expression of lyricism in all Rachmaninoff’s piano music. The melody sings limpidly above evanescent arpeggios [in the left hand].” The G sharp minor prelude, another popular favorite, shimmers throughout with coruscating brilliance.

Rachmaninoff wrote only two piano sonatas, the First in 1907, the Second in 1913. He heavily revised the original version of the Second in 1931, considerably shortening it and lightening the textures in numerous passages. Although not especially long in minutes, this sonata is big in scope and impact, embracing an enormous emotional range, and approaching symphonic proportions in its textures and polyphonic complexities. The sound of heavy, pounding bells, which fascinated the composer all his life, and which found their way into so many of his scores, is evoked frequently over the course of the sonata.

The three movements are not defined as such in the score, and are played without pause, underscoring their close interrelationship. The first movement conforms to a traditional sonata-allegro structure. The second serves as an oasis of quiet meditation separating the traumas of the first movement from the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the third.

 

Program Notes by Richard Markow, 2012

 

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