Friday, February 11, 2022

Stephen Hough: How to Survive the Year That Would Never End

Who: Pianist Stephen Hough
What: a program that includes Schumann's Kreisleriana, some Chopin – the 3rd Ballade, the 2nd Scherzo, and a couple Nocturnes – as well as Four Bagatelles by Alan Rawsthorne and his own Partita  
When: Tuesday night (February 15th) at 7:30
Where: at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg.

(Mask wearing, photo ID and proof of vaccination or a document of COVID-19 recovery from a licensed healthcare provider will be required to attend.)

Mr. Hough's appearance in Harrisburg is part of a residency in which he will perform Camille Saint-Saëns' 4th Piano Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend, Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 3:00 at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in uptown Harrisburg; and also hold a Master Class at Messiah University on Monday, February 14th, from 5-7pm, which is free and open to the public.

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Ever since I'd started hearing about the British pianist Stephen Hough, I think the common denominator in most articles and interviews was the word "polymath." Now, as one afflicted by various anxieties associated with the word math, I found this a daunting descriptor (how does one treat someone who's a "polymath"? with over-the-counter medications?). Perhaps Renaissance Man would sound more benign but given the gender-specific trash-heap of recent history, polymath has become the new Renaissance Person

In addition to being a concert pianist, recording artist, and teacher, Stephen Hough is also a composer. These days, people take note of this as few performers are also composers – just as few composers are also performers. Yet, going back to the 18th Century, embracing Bach and Mozart and most of their colleagues, and especially through the 19th Century's Age of Virtuosos, it was understood performers also composed: it was part of the job, even if all you did was write a few bits of music for your own concerts (and look what Paganini did for the world of violin-playing with what few pieces he did compose for himself). And while Hough's list of over thirty published works includes a Cello Concerto for Stephen Isserlis, several choral works (including two Masses), song cycles and, most recently, his first String Quartet for the Takacs Quartet last year, he also includes his piano pieces, among them four sonatas and several short transcriptions, in his own recordings and recital programs. On this program, he performs his Partita, composed fairly recently in 2019.

He also has published a novel. Now, lots of us may write novels, but damn few of us get them published. The Final Retreat explores the inner world of a priest dealing with sex addiction and religious despair.” He's also published a collection of essays and “musings,” Rough Ideas, in 2019.

In 2008, he won an international poetry competition.

He also paints. And not just a few daubs to while away what free time he may have: he had a solo exhibition at a London gallery in 2012.

Among other things, not only does he like to talk about perfume, he's written a little book about it, Nosing Around, in 2014. Having converted to Roman Catholicism when he was 19, twice in his life he considered becoming a monk: his book, The Bible as Prayer, was published in 2007. While it may seem an odd segue, he has enjoyed having a Twitter account, but also writes lengthier posts and articles for various publications and for a time regularly maintained one of the more intelligent blogs involved with culture and the arts (for instance, this post about “problems playing the piano”). 

So it should come as no surprise that, in 2001, Stephen Hough received a McArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. “Genius Grant”), at the time the first classical music performer to win the honor. 

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Not to begin at the beginning, let me mention Hough's Partita first. The title may be familiar to fans of Bach and various of his suites, sonatas, and partitas for violin or keyboard, and Bach's works may make us associate a certain technical brilliance with the “form.” But initially, it's not really a “form,” as such, more a kind of loose collection of usually dance-inspired movements; in other words (with apologies to Shakespeare), a suite by any other name...

About this work, composed in 2019, the composer has written: “Having composed four sonatas for piano of a serious, intense character I wanted to write something different for my Naumburg commission - something brighter, something more celebratory, more nostalgic. This Partita is in five movements. Its outer, more substantial bookends have an 'English' flavour and suggest the world of a grand cathedral organ. The first of these alternates between ceremonial pomp and sentimental circumstance, whereas the final movement, taking thematic material from the first, is a virtuosic toccata - a sortie out of the gothic doom into brilliant Sunday sunshine. At the centre of the work are three shorter movements, each utilising the interval of a fifth: a restless, jagged Capriccio of constantly shifting time signatures, and two Cancion y Danzas, inspired by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou.”

While the graphic on this video shows Stephen Hough at the piano, he is not the pianist in this performance. It was made by Albert Cano Smit from a live Carnegie Hall performance in October, 2019.

I. Overture (0:00) – II. Capriccio (at 3:52) – III. Cancion y Danza I (5:30) – IV. Cancion y Danza II (7:20) – V. Toccata (9:03).

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To the unaccustomed eye (or ear), this program might seem “eclectic” but Hough is never one to throw together a program with a bit of this and a tad of that, something Romantic, something Modern, to create the usual varied chronology. Two of the composers are English, writing between 1938 and 2019; and the “other” two are contemporaneous 19th Century Romantics: Chopin's 2nd Scherzo was written in 1837 and Schumann's Kreisleriana in 1838. Indeed, all the works, here, by Chopin and Schumann cover barely a decade. For a little perspective, keep in mind Beethoven – whose recent 250th Anniversary was yet another victim of the Pandemic – had died only ten years earlier, in 1827.

Alan Rawsthorne may be an unfamiliar name to American audiences, but he belongs to that generation of English composers coming of age Between the Wars. Born in 1905 (around the time Richard Strauss had described England as “a land without music”), he was a native of Lancashire in the Northwest of England – Haslingden, to be exact, close enough to towns familiar to fans of British TV shows like “Last Tango in Halifax” and “All Creatures Great and Small.” Hough, incidentally, was born in Heswall in what was then part of Cheshire, just a short distance from Liverpool, and not far from Manchester where he would later study. As it happened, Rawsthorne, giving up on the study of dentistry (“thank God,” he told a friend, “before getting near anyone's mouth”), also attended music school in Manchester. Given how many Americans think of London as “Downtown England,” this would practically make Rawsthorne and Hough neighbors...

Alan Rawsthorne
The Four Bagatelles were written in 1938 for Gordon Green, a friend he had first met when he arrived in Manchester in 1925 as a future dentist, before dedicating himself to music. Green described him as “strikingly handsome: slim with blonde hair, pale complexion, exceptionally broad forehead and an oval face narrowing steeply towards the chin.... There was a hint of Modigliani about the head and the face was Chopin-like, but with a mouth even more firmly moulded than Chopin's and without the disfigurement of Chopin's too large aquiline nose. His conversation was the most alert I have known.” He also mentioned Rawsthorne was apparently enough of a pianist to perform Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Brahms' “Handel” Variations. In fact, in 1929, his predilection was for Brahms – many of England's late-19th Century composers were heavily influenced by Brahms – but after traveling in Europe and studying with the great pianist Egon Petri in Poland, one summer, then in Berlin, his stylistic interests changed to Bartók and Stravinsky. But the horizons were darkening – these are the grim years before World War II officially began – and soon, everything would change. At the time, Rawsthorne was living in London, struggling to earn a living and gain recognition as a composer. His first composition to make it into print was a Concertante (No. 2) for Violin & Piano in 1937.

As if the geography of Northwestern England wasn't a small enough world, one of Stephen Hough's teachers would be Gordon Green (who also, incidentally, taught John Ogdon). And Hough would include Rawsthorne's Bagatelles on a recording of English piano music twenty years ago.

Each of the Bagatelles is based on the same ten-note theme. “Just over a minute apiece, they manage to say much in little,” according to critic Sam Jacobson who reviewed Hough's performance of this program in Cincinnati in November of last year. “The percussiveness of the opening was tempered by the wistfulness of the succeeding piece, and the closing Lento was perhaps the finest in its languid nostalgia.”

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More familiar names like Schumann and Chopin hardly need much of an introduction, nor does the music, familiar or not, need any help from me for you to better enjoy it. But given some of the “associations” between composers and artists and their influences, along with the Times They Lived In, let me mention that, Schumann wrote his suite of “character pieces” based on E.T.A. Hoffman's fictional kapellmeister, Kreisler – no relation, as some time-challenged people have assumed, to the violinist named Fritz – in 1838 and Chopin, his 2nd Scherzo the year before. 

For those who wonder if all these great names we hear on concert programs today ever had any connection in real life, Chopin was the artist Schumann the Critic hailed with the classic line, “Hats off, Gentleman, a Genius” (a comment usually assumed to be about young Brahms). While Chopin appears in the imaginary cast of another of Schumann's glorious suites, Carnaval, Schumann dedicated Kreisleriana to Chopin. The report is, after receiving his copy of the score, the only comment Chopin made about it concerned the design of the title page... (ouch). Still, the following year, after completing his 2nd Ballade (which he'd been re-working over a period of a year or two), he published it with a dedication to Robert Schumann.

In Schumann's collection of “character pieces” – the term ambiguously describes “a musical composition expressive of a specific mood or non-musical idea” as opposed to an abstract form or dance, whether it's a “rondo” or a “minuet” – he doesn't so much tell Hoffman's story about the mercurial musician, Johannes Kreisler (the subject of three novels he wrote before 1814), as depict in music his “various, often kaleidoscopic moods” reflecting the character's apparent bipolar personality. Given Schumann's own conflicts with mood swings that used to be called “manic-depression,” it's small wonder he was attracted to this character. He wrote to his future wife, Clara Wieck, “I'm overflowing with music and beautiful melodies now – imagine, since my last letter I've finished another whole notebook of new pieces. I intend to call it Kreisleriana. You and one of your ideas play the main role in it, and I want to dedicate it to you – yes, to you and nobody else – and then you will smile so sweetly when you discover yourself in it.” He reported that, basically, he wrote the entire suite in four days.

Though Martha Argerich may be a controversial choice (she usually is), I'll just post an excerpt, here, as an example of the opening character's manic nature with its lyrical contrasts. While Schumann avoids descriptive titles like those he uses in Scenes from Childhood, the opening tempo is marked Äußerst bewegt (extremely animated): too often it is so animated as to be out-of-control. The idea is that it should be almost out-of-control... (Not sure what J.M.W. Turner's painting has to do with it, but such is YouTube.) As with any music this dramatic, it would be impossible to tell you not to realize your own personal inner-cinema.

To continue with Mr. Jacobson's review: “In lesser hands, Schumann’s 35-minute Kreisleriana can meander and wander, but Hough’s reading was of singular direction and purpose in spite of the work’s kaleidoscope of moods. In the commanding opening, the darkly passionate material was given quite a workout. At times I found his tone a bit harsh, but this evened out as he better adjusted to the instrument he was provided. This is music of enormously wide contrasts, embodying the opposing Florestan and Eusebius personas Schumann crafted [in several of his works and writings], perhaps in reflection of his bipolar condition. Hough was keen to emphasize these contrasts, authentically capturing its mercurial temperaments. In the sharp rhythmic gestures that punctuated, Hough used limited pedal to yield a strikingly dry tone, saving the more liberal pedaling for the lyrical sections in the interest of further maximizing contrast. Another highlight came in the fugato passage of the penultimate movement wherein the pianist achieved a pointed clarity, in no way compromised by its breathless vigor.”

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Chopin has figured prominently throughout Hough's career, and his recent recording of the Complete Nocturnes, made during the Pandemic, has been winning a great deal of acclaim. Alex Ross, writing in last month's New Yorker, said that in the liner notes “Hough remarks the Nocturnes are a 'corpus of some of the finest operatic arias ever written.' The observation is hardly novel; Chopin’s love of bel-canto opera has been noted innumerable times. Yet I’m not sure if any pianist on record has fleshed out the link as thoroughly and as persuasively as Hough has.” After comparing Hough's to two other acclaimed recent recordings, he places him, ultimately, in the same company as “the robust elegance of the younger Arthur Rubinstein, the grandeur of Claudio Arrau, the fine-spun melancholy of Ivan Moravec, the vibrant lyricism of Maria João Pires, the unaffected poetry of the late Brazilian Nelson Freire. I have no hesitation about placing Hough in that company. On many moonlit nights, his version will be the one I reach for first.” 

(You can find the CD, here; and it's available for download from Hyperion where you can also sample each of the nocturnes.)

[Initially, every mention of Hough's program listed only "Two Nocturnes" with no two works specified: since he'd just recorded all of them, I supposed he would choose any two he felt like playing that night, but Ya-Ting Chang informs me he's doing these two: the F-Sharp Major Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 2 (here, with Yundi Li) and the E-flat Major Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 (another pianist/composer you might've heard of, here: Sergei Rachmaninoff), both composed in the early-1830s.]

“Character Piece” is certainly too weak a term to apply to some of Chopin's single-movement works of larger scope like his Ballades and Scherzos. True, they fit the definition as Schumann applied it (or perhaps as it's applied to Schumann), being non-abstract and ostensibly inspired by “non-musical” ideas. The term ballade refers to "a narrative poem created by a poet in imitation of the old anonymous folk ballad," especially popular in England early in the 19th Century, however Chopin viewed his use of it as a form of inspiration.

Supposedly, this particular work, composed in the summer of 1841, was inspired by a dramatic poem, Undine, subtitled Ballada, by Adam Mickiewicz, one of the greatest Polish poets of Chopin's generation. (During the last months of his own life, Chopin visited the ailing Mickiewicz and “soothed his nerves” by playing some of his piano music for him. Mickiewicz would live until 1855; Chopin would die in October of 1849.) 

The poem's title in Polish is Świtezianka. You can read Dorothea Prall Radin's English translation here, but be warned, she translates the water nymph, usually called Undine (or Ondine) in German or French, as “The Nixie.” She turns out not to be a playful sprite the young man encounters on the lakeshore of Świtez

"For a thousand years shall your spirit wait
  By the side of this witnessing tree,
And the fires of hell that never abate
  Shall burn you unceasingly.”

He hears, and he walks with a wandering tread,
  He gazes with wandering eyes;
Then a hurricane out of the deepwood sped
  And the waters seethe and rise.

They seethe to their depths and the circling tide
  Of the whirlpool snatches them down
Through its open jaws as the seas divide:
  So the youth and the maiden drown.

Incidentally, some think this poem was, instead, the inspiration for the Second Ballade, also full of suitably dramatic contrasts, which, as I mentioned, Chopin dedicated to Schumann in direct response to Kreisleriana's dedication to him. You can certainly listen to either Ballade as pure music, inner-cinema or not. Romanticism so often leads us poor mortals down many foolish, emotional paths: just because Beethoven referenced reading Shakespeare's Tempest while writing a certain piano sonata of his, people spend far too much time ascribing this theme to Prospero or that passage to Miranda and Ferdinand when, in fact, it may have been the sheer magic of the play's tale that inspired the composer to something purely musical rather than literally theatrical.

In this performance, Yundi Li is the pianist, recorded live in Carnegie Hall in 2016. 

Curiously, given the maddening ambiguity of musical terminology, when we see Scherzo, we think of the light-hearted and often earthy dances Beethoven used to replace the time-worn courtly minuet of the previous generation: it comes from the Italian for “joke.” But Chopin wrote four works he called scherzos. Rather than the usual expectation, an early editor described them as “gestures of despair and demonic energy.” When the first scherzo appeared in 1833, Robert Schumann, as one of Germany's most influential critics, wondered “How is 'gravity' to clothe itself if 'jest' goes about in dark veils?”

Of this particular piece written in 1837 (keep in mind, a year before Schumann wrote his Kreisleriana), Schumann compared it to a Byronic poem, "so overflowing with tenderness, boldness, love and contempt." One of Chopin's own students wrote the composer told him the renowned sotto voce opening was a question and the second phrase, its answer: "For Chopin it was never questioning enough, never soft enough, never vaulted enough. It must be a charnel-house." Hardly much of a joke...

I admit a fondness for Yundi Li's Chopin, so here he is again, this time from the Chopin Competition of 2000, with the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor.


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When the 2020-2021 Season was first announced, I was excited to see a pianist of Stephen Hough's caliber coming to Harrisburg, and dismayed when, understandably, the Covid-19 Pandemic and its ensuing lockdown postponed his recital, along with everything else. So what was the impact of all this on the life of the artist? While some of us may have perfected our procrastination skills, how did he occupy his time? What did he think about as he looks ahead to the future?

Here is an interview from Musical America's series, “One to One” with Clive Paget, recorded about a year ago, already one year into the Pandemic and just as he was resuming performances (the night before this was taped, he had performed Brahms' 1st Piano Concerto for a virtual concert with live musicians in a concert hall, but alas, without a live audience present).

To conclude, he says, considering one very important fact many of us became aware of at the end of that interminable first year, “...without the arts, you wonder 'well, why are we on the planet at all? – what's the point of living,' unless we have that nourishment. And whatever religious side or not you see to this, it's an ecstasy, it's lifting us out of ourselves, it's contemplation, it's transcendence. And I think we need to get that into the bloodstream of politics, too, so that our politicians say, 'you know, we need to put money into the arts because the arts gives us back more than we could ever possibly give it.'”  

And so, here we are, now hoping for whatever nourishment we can find in this second interminable year, still waiting for it to be over, whatever "normality," new or re-imagined, awaits us at the end of this labyrinthine tunnel.

- Dick Strawser