City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: 22 October 2011
Stephen Hough will perform this program in Melbourne on 27 October and Canberra on 29 October 2011.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata Quasi una Fantasia, no. 14 in C sharp minor, opus 27 no. 2
Sonata for Piano (broken branches)
Sonata no. 4 in F sharp major
Sonata no. 5 in F sharp major
Sonata in B minor, S178
Stephen Hough – piano
Stephen Hough says that he chose this program to be one of strange sonatas, which is altogether fitting for Liszt’s 200th birthday. The program, consisting entirely of sonatas — no préludes, études or the like (not counting the three encore pieces) — might theoretically have been stranger with, say, one of Pierre Boulez’s sonatas, but Hough seems to have been after a more subtle variety of strangeness. A sense of mystery and a very personal quality, very expressive of the internal world marry these pieces under Hough’s playing. The honesty and faithfulness to the Truth in his playing brought the music close to poetry. Though making music and poems are not the same or even parallel activities, the word ‘sonata’ shares an etymology with ‘sonnet’, the stem son- having to do with sound, and, as Stephen Hough points out in the program note, a sonata is sounded rather than sung, the piano having to make do on its own without words. Hough also pointed out in his short speech in-between the Beethoven and his own piece (usually I’d be against spiels in amongst the music, but Hough is a very good public speaker, thoughtful an interesting, with the voice of a 1930’s radio presenter), that Liszt, whose birthday fell on the very day of this recital, invented the concept and the word ‘recital’ as a sort of pure recitation of music of a single musician. Thus, though sounded and not sung there is the similar expectation in the audience, the similar solitude of the performer as in a poetry recitation, far from a mere reading, but an honest expression of the sonata as if it were naturally being created then and there, as Hough says ‘as if the notes were still wet on the page.’ Mozart wrote something similar once, that the height of piano playing is to play as if you had composed the music yourself.
Because of the purposeful lack of words in a sonata, one must be wary of words or descriptions attached to them. If the artist could express the same thing in words, they would, or if they played anyway they would end up with obvious, monotonous music. Stephen Hough can and does express himself well in words (either speaking or writing) so we don’t have to take that on faith in this case. If poems can be ambiguous or express several meanings, thoughts and feelings at once, and they can, music is even more ambiguous, if the two can be compared like that. If a sonata is labeled “Moonlight” by someone who didn’t even compose it, or perhaps more insidiously, described glibly as gloomy or melancholy or any other way, it denies music its own identity. Music is neither a thought nor an emotion nor a person, it is very much its own entity, even if it does come out of (at least proximately) human beings; it “contains multitudes” and it’s OK if it is ambiguous or self-contradictory.
Beethoven rather writes as his title “SONATA QUASI UNA FANTASIA” which is much more interesting than “Moonlight.” It is full of fantasy, the wonder of human imagination, thoughts beyond the physical, corporeal manifestation of reality. Analytical interpreters of the opening movement of the sonata who hear a funeral march and a tolling bell thus are limited and do the music an injustice. Musicologists have even written that Beethoven took the idea from Mozart, namely the first scene of Don Giovanni when the Comandatore is dying, murdered by Don Giovanni. But besides the triplet arpeggios (which are staccato in the Mozart anyway) there is a completely different feeling and character to Beethoven’s music. Those musicologists, having linked the piece with death — and a contemporary of Beethoven’s who gave a probably apocryphal story about the composer improvising this music over the body of a friend at his funeral is partly to blame — do go on to point out Beethoven’s masonic beliefs in death and rebirth, but this is quite different from the finality of a funeral. The sonata certainly does not convey “murder most foul,” as Mozart’s music does and accompanies, and does not strike me as funereal at all, or even as having to do with death necessarily. Indeed the piece, being both technically very easy to play and also so open in itself to interpretation with Beethoven’s ‘delicatissimo throughout’ instruction at the beginning, sounds very different each time it is played, even by the same pianist. The music is especially sensitive to very small changes in the pianist’s personal mood, thoughts and feelings of the moment.
Stephen Hough played the piece very fast. The arpeggios in the middle register flowed together harp-like and lyrically almost as if they were filling in an impressionistic background sensible only unconsciously. The bass notes — all sounding in octaves — especially the lower ones, he played very distinctly and quite loudly, growling slightly. The higher melodic line was relatively bright and carefully and clearly phrased under that high tempo. The playing was remarkably liquid, though in a carefully directed way. Still, the sense of a man’s fingers performing on a keyboard was distant and the music seemed more a thing in itself out of space, out of time, especially because of the singular quality Hough gave his interpretation. Of course the piece has the drastic change from the first to the second movement, from stillness to an allegro dance, and on to the liquid but much more turbulent third movement, but somehow it seemed all of a piece, perhaps because of the sense Hough brought to the music of a mind’s solitude, left to its own thoughts. Sonnets and sonatas aren’t the same thing nor even necessarily two ways of expressing the same thing, but the solitude brings this music close to the art of poetry and something of this piece is maybe akin to Petrarch’s sonnet which begins
Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi
Vo mesurando a passi tardi e lenti, …
Though the sonata is its own animal. Hough gave the music truthfulness by virtue of the effortless, unforced, natural performance, and moreover the close attachment he must feel toward the piece. This was even more the case when he came to play his own piece and the Liszt sonata.
Hough’s sonata “broken branches,” according to his note in the program is an “oblique tribute” to Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, also taking for inspiration Scripture: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing,’ from St. John’s Gospel and one of the final sections of the 16 which make up the sonata is an exact metrical quotation of the sixth century Crux fidelis. The sonata also has something of Liszt’s sensibility without being derivative in any way. The piece is very modern in style, ambiguous, not in the least obvious, quite spiky at times and not always tonal or consonant, and it doesn’t hold back or hide behind show-offiness; it has the wholeness of a sonata however loosely the 16 sections are gathered. It seems to have grown naturally out of Hough’s style of playing, as if he found himself able to play certain interesting sounds in a way which spoke to him, but wouldn’t fit in any existing music he could perform, so the piece feels necessary in a fundamental way. The piece produces sounds I’ve never heard come out of a piano and there is something orchestral about the range of expressive color, except that the sounds are all of a piece, peculiar to the piano as its own instrument unlike any other.
Hough is very courageous and bold in his playing, not afraid to use some firmness with the piano, producing sometimes very loud sounds, but so colorful and bright, never heavy, that they do not seem severe. He plays at his most soft, gentle and lyrical quite sparingly, so that when he does these passages are sublime and so fitting, never slack or lugubrious; there is always a vital pulse under his playing. He is also able to finish a fast run of notes, especially in the Liszt, and catch just the right degree and number of the phrase’s last notes with the pedal to leave their opalescent overtones singing in the body of the piano, of a color and character which sound so right in their place in the piece. None of these capabilities is ever abused for “effect” or sensation but come naturally and seamlessly into the performance.
These qualities were all put to use close together if not all at once in the Scriabin sonatas, which somehow felt very right in the program to step from the 21st century sonata to the Liszt sonata. Hough’s varied but flowing style of playing asks for a close listening, and often intense concentration is the only way to really savor the music, especially in these Scriabin sonatas which are sometimes so quick and quite mercurial, you feel like holding on to them to savor the music better. The two sonatas are each quite different yet both are very compressed, finishing, more or less, what they need to say, which is quite a bit, in short order. Perhaps they are examples of those pieces which are more fun to play than to listen to, but Hough made them moving in their own right, heightened by virtue of their placement in the program.
The Liszt B minor sonata most of all seemed spontaneous, unique, as if encountered for the first time though not as a thing totally unfamiliar and alien. Hough delved in and explored the piece as if it were an extension of his own thoughts and somehow those of the listener. Both listener and pianist were so completely absorbed in this music that at the end, the silence, and the silences are a part of the music even if they happen not to have any more notes after them, was clung to as if the pianist didn’t want to let go of the music yet, and I found it echoed in the mind for some time as if it were still sounding. Hough attained something rather special here, something transcendent and very moving. We must invent a new sort of applause; the cacophonous variety didn’t seem right here as a way of expressing appreciation.