Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough


New York Variations

THIS RECITAL consists of works by four New York-based composers - written in their thirties - which stride across the century from 1930 to 1991. Although all four composers are probably better known for works using other instrumental combinations, these piano pieces were of crucial, even seminal importance in their development and show them at the height of their powers - their voices fully 'broken'.

Although none of them professional pianists, they write for the instrument with consummate insight and invention. Notwithstanding the palm-clusters of the Corigliano, the knocking on wood of the Tsontakis or the citrus astringency of Copland's dissonances, there is always a respect for the piano here: an understanding of its tradition, a love for its sonority.

  • John Corigliano (b 1938)
  • Etude Fantasy (1976)

John Corigliano's emergence as one of the most important American composers of the twentieth century has been the result of a steady but often hidden growth. Underappreciated outside his native country for many years, he sprang into international view with his astonishing First Symphony (1989), a work of total maturity, originality and greatness. This symphony has now firmly entered the international repertoire in a way virtually unique for a contemporary work of its size and difficulty, receiving performances to date by close to eighty orchestras in seventeen countries. (On a personal, anecdotal note, it was my own score of the Albeniz/Godowsky Tango - which Corigliano borrowed without telling me what it was for - which provided the inspiration for the haunting offstage piano episodes in the work.) Following on from the symphony a number of major works have appeared, most notably the opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1990) - the Metropolitan Opera's first commission since 1967; and the String Quartet (1996) commissioned by the Cleveland Quartet for their final concerts and recording. His earlier works, always performed with great success and frequency, are now established as central works of the repertoire.

Among these latter is the Etude Fantasy (1976) which comes from the end of Corigliano's first period of composition, described by the composer as a "tense, histrionic outgrowth of the 'clean' American sound of Barber, Copland, Harris, and Schuman". It is a work of tremendous formal unity, as well as being a dazzling display piece for the performer with not a few treacherous stretches of vertiginous virtuosity! It was premiered by James Tocco on 9 October 1976.

The following notes from the composer are a succinct guide for the listener:

My Etude Fantasy is actually a set of studies combined into the episodic form and character of a fantasy. The material in the studies is related most obviously by the interval of a second (and its inversion and expansion to sevenths and ninths) which is used both melodically and in the building of the work's harmonic structure.

The first etude is for the left hand alone - a 31/2-minute, bold, often ferocious statement which introduces both an opening six-note row (the first six notes of the work) and a melodic germ (marked 'icy' in the score) which follows the initial outburst, This etude reaches a climax in which both the row and the thematic germ are heard together, and ends as the right hand enters, high on the keyboard, playing a pianissimo, slow chromatic descent which introduces the next etude - a study in legato playing.

In this short second etude both hands slowly float downward as a constant crossing of contrapuntal lines provides melodic interest. The sustaining of sound as well as the clarity of crossed voices is important here.

The third etude follows - a fleet development on the simple pattern of a fifth (fingers one and five) contracting to a third (fingers two and four). In this section there is much crossing of hands and during the process a melody emerges in the top voices. A buildup leads to a highly chromatic middle section (marked 'slithery') with sudden virtuosic outbursts, after which the melody returns to end the etude as it began.

The fourth etude is a study of ornaments. Trills, grace notes, tremolos, glissandos and roulades ornament the opening material (Etude 1) and then develop the first four notes of the third etude into a frenetically charged scherzando where the four fingers of the left hand softly play a low cluster of notes (like a distant drum) as the thumb alternates with the right hand in rapid barbaric thrusts. This leads to a restatement of the opening six-note row of the Fantasy in a highly ornamented fashion.

After a sonorous climax comes the final etude, a study of melody. In it, the player is required to isolate the melodic line, projecting it through the filigree which surrounds it; here the atmosphere is desolate and non-climactic, and the material is based entirely on the melodic implication of the left-hand etude, with slight references to the second (legato) etude. The work ends quietly with the opening motto heard in retrograde accompanying the mournful two-note ostinato.

  • Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
  • Piano Variations (1930)

In September 1929 Aaron Copland returned to New York having spent a summer in Paris. On New Year's Day 1930 he moved into a small rented house in Bedford, New York, as he was "anxious to work on a piano piece that had been in [his] mind for some time". In May of the same year he wrote to a friend: "I am totally absorbed with the new piano piece and pleased with my progress ... For the moment it is called 'theme and variations'. It's a new form for me and lends itself beautifully to my particular kind of development from a single germ." Commenting on the genesis of the piece, Copland wrote:

From the start, my first major piano piece, the Piano Variations, had a 'rightness' [ ... ] It was not composed in the consecutive order of its finished state. I am told that this is at odds with what I have written about the piece - that each variation is meant to develop organically from the previous one and all contribute to a carefully constructed whole. While this is so, it is also true that I worked on the variations individually, not knowing exactly where or how they would eventually fit together. I cannot explain this contradiction. One fine day when the time was right, the order of the variations fell into place. (Copland Vol. I: 1900 through 1942; Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. Faber & Faber, London 1984)

It was that summer at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, when Copland finally distilled his sixty-two pages of sketches into a concentrated, seventeen-page masterpiece which he eventually entitled Piano Variations. The title did not immediately fall into place either: other thoughts had been, Melodic Variations, Thematic Variations, Fantasie on an Original Theme, Chaconne, Declamations on a Serious Theme and so on. The chosen title not only enabled the composer to orchestrate the piece in 1957 and neatly call it Orchestral Variations, but its abstract flavour, its 'modern' sound, suited the mood of the music perfectly.

The first performance of the piece took place in a League of Composers concert in January 1931 with the composer as soloist. Copland had wanted Walter Gieseking to play it, but the latter declined in a candid letter from Berlin:

This composition is very interesting and most original, but I do not know an audience which would accept such crude dissonances without protesting [ ... ] a work of such severity of style is not possible among the normal type of concert-goers.

It is an intriguing thought that within a few years political forces in that same city would have prevented Gieseking from including the piece on his concert programmes, not just because of the racy originality of its harmonic language, but because of the racial origins of its composer.

The piece is constructed as a theme, twenty variations, and a coda, and Copland admits the influence of Schoenberg's serialism in the use of a four-note cell on which the entire piece is built. He also cites as an influence the frugal socio-economic conditions of the time (it was begun only a couple of months after the Wall Street Crash). However, the more audible influences are Stravinsky and jazz, both of which he had discovered whilst studying in Paris in the early 1920s. The short theme is ostensibly in C sharp minor/ E major (and reminiscent of the subject of Bach's C sharp minor Fugue from Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier); but the B sharp - the note that would lead us to the tonic - has been enharmonically distorted to C natural, a foreign body to either key.This theme appears in the course of the work upside down, inside out, backwards, like a cube held up to the light from every possible angle - its 'C' natural a bump on its side preventing the music from settling into a comfortable place or pulse.

The opening statement of the theme is displaced over two octaves and punctuated by chordal stabs - punches leaving the sting of a harmonic hanging in the air. Variation I is the only time we hear the theme in its pure form, in the right hand, yet here the left hand tags along a bar behind like a shadow of discord. In the second variation the left hand has caught up with the right but, although they walk arm in arm, the left hand swivels the fournote cell around, replacing notes one and two with notes three and four - sharp elbows of dissonance. And so on ... there is not room in this context to analyse each variation. Suffice to say that there is not a note in the piece which is not directly related to the thematic cell; it is VARIATIONS in capital letters.

  • Ben Weber (1916-1979)
  • Fantasia (Variations) (1946)

In 1939 a young pianist called William Masselos made his debut at New York's Town Hall playing, amongst other works, Copland's Piano Variations. When Copland had finished writing his monumental Piano Fantasy in 1957, he admitted in a letter to Benjamin Britten that giving the first performance would be beyond him, and he decided to ask Masselos to play the premiere: "After hearing Bill play through the piece one day while he was testing pianos in Steinway's basement, I really got excited: Masselos was a composer's dream." (Copland since 1943; Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. St Martin's Press, 1989)

Around a decade earlier Ben Weber had been similarly thrilled with the playing of William Masselos and decided to write him a serious piece for piano which became the Fantasia (Variations), premiered in March 1949 at Carnegie Hall, New York. Weber wrote in his unpublished autobiography:

I write pieces for my lovers when I dedicate a piece I don't do it idly. I never did it with success on that level except with Billy Masselos, though it was not physical [ ... ] The Fantasia is a kind of bond between us, and when I wrote it deliberately, note for note, I was really making love to him through the avenues of sound. (How I took 63 years to commit suicide; with Matthew Paris)

(On a personal note I had the privilege of playing this piece for Masselos in the 1980s before he died.)

Ben Weber was born in 1916 in St Louis and was largely self-taught. His music was highly regarded by many composers of the time such as Copland, Carter, Cage and Babbitt, and he worked as a copyist for many, including Virgil Thomson and Artur Schnabel, both of whom became admirers and close friends. He was the first American composer to use the twelve-note technique consistently, and he made the following comments on his music (quoted by Oliver Daniel in an article for Broadcast Music Inc. in 1965):

By and large since 1938 my music has been usually atonal [ ... ] but sometimes I have written pieces which have strong functional and tonal impetus, or at least implication. However my use of 'techniques with twelve-tones', i.e. serial music, has been consistent over a period of now twenty-two years, and most of what I and some others consider to be my most important work is accomplished within these means.

The work is titled with a certain precision: Fantasia (Variations), the latter word in both brackets and smaller letters. Thus, like the Corigliano, this piece is principally a fantasy - a large form with smaller units creating a framework to hold the piece together. (As it is a piece using the twelve-note technique, it is by default 'variations' - any twelve-note row can be seen as a 'theme' which is varied.) The overall structure of the work is three sections: first, a theme with four variations followed by a five-bar interlude; second, three variations in passacaglia form; finally, a free fantasy section based on earlier material which culminates in a climax surging with emotion. In contrast to the cool objectivity of the Copland work, the Weber revels in the sun of its post-Romantic harmony, and is freckled with tonal implications, in spite of the Second Viennese School 'umbrella'. In fact there is even a whiff of Brahms's cigar in the loose folds of the arpeggiated figuration, as well as the more exotic fragrance of Scriabin.

  • George Tsontakis (b 1951)
  • Ghost Variations (1991)

"I have always listened to George Tsontakis' music with a mixture of admiration and envy, constantly wishing that a bit of his fecundity of imagination might rub off on me. It is very easy to take note of the music's powerful craft, its splendid pacing, its happy union of a wealth of musical languages. What is most significant, however, is its profound spiritual impulse, even when it does not purport to examine 'spiritual' matters. His work touches the heart in a deep and personal way." (Christopher Rouse)

"[Tsontakis] has the 'luck' of having concrete musical ideas that the ear can perceive and the mind hold in memory. These ideas tend to be expressed in concentrated, densely packed, nodule-like motives that the composer treats obsessively, and which, as they spread out in time and spin in figurational, centripetal orbits, create structure and gesture." (George Rochberg)

Born in 1951, George Tsontakis was honoured with the prestigious award for 'lifetime achievement' from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995 - a short 'lifetime' so far, yet one in which he has written a portfolio of works of striking originality and stature. Like many other composers he rediscovered tonality in the mid- 1980s, but has managed to trace a uniquely personal harmonic path. Where many merely took out old suits which had been hanging up for a season or two, dusted them off, and began wearing them again,Tsontakis seemed rather to weave his own cloth from familiar melodic and harmonic strands of the past.The result was a bespoke brilliance - one of a kind - in which the music is new, yet feels as if it is already classic. Musical America described his String Quartet No 4 (1988) as "[containing] a reflective emotional power reminiscent of Beethoven's late quartets"; and there is a real sense in which Beethoven's last masterpieces are some kind of springboard for Tsontakis - not in any superficial imitation, but because both composers seem to drink from the same 'source'.

The epic Ghost Variations (1991) was the next major work to be written after the Fourth Quartet and its title is deliberately ambiguous. If 'variation' as a concept has itself been varied in other works on this recording, in this piece 'variation' as a structure has disappeared entirely. It is more the idea of metamorphosis - material (and perhaps even the listener) changing over the course of the piece. The 'Ghost' in the title suggests the world of the spiritual - of memory, of dreams; and a 'play within a play' occurs when there is a small set of traditional variations on a Mozart theme (from the third movement of the Piano Concerto in E flat major, K482). Tsontakis admits that when he came across this theme for the first time, out of context, he thought that it was by Beethoven; and the inappropriateness of its stubby, virile treatment in this context is another 'ghost' Beethoven as 'ghost-writer' for Mozart ... a 'medium' who distorts the message.

There are two overriding, opposing psychological elements at work in the piece which could be described as obsessiveness versus dissipation, clear-sightedness versus hallucination, firm purpose versus aimlessness; a contrast between moments when everything matters, and moments when nothing matters - one could almost say a Western/Eastern conflict. The search for 'enlightenment' happens here either by obsessive repetition - as if trying to solve a problem by going over it again and again; or by an unravelling process, "becoming muddled" or "doodling" as the composer writes in the score.

The work is in three movements and has two harmonic elements which mirror the emotional ones described above - the tritone versus major tonality. Each movement begins with a tritone and ends with a major chord (thus the whole piece does the same, the opening tritone 'G' and 'D flat' resolving to 'A flat' major at the close of the work); and a melodic cell is implied in this tritone to major-third harmonic structure: the falling or rising sernitones which occur throughout the piece.

The first movement is in the form of an extended, free fantasy leading up to the 'Mozart Variations'- a theme plus six brief variations, the last of which is repeated. The fantasy section has three distinct musical ideas; a semi-aleatoric section which opens the work like a'spilling of beans', stopping and starting and gradually intensifying into the second idea, a syncopated triplet fanfare motive. After further intensification, the third idea follows, a "stately" yet jagged motive of broken chords, based mainly on fourths, which is underpinned by a chorale in open octaves. This chorale eventually blossoms and sheds the broken chords to bloom into a romantically lyrical section based largely on the falling semitone cell mentioned above. These three ideas are developed and explored with increasing intensity, landing us without warning in the astonishing rococo world of the Mozart theme. This moment is a shock to say the least, and we are not sure whether we should laugh or not; but as we are caught up in the swift journey of the variations we soon realize that this is no laughing matter. The music now has taken on a vigorous, Beethovenian intensity, the Mozart theme a fragile memory ... a ghost; and the movement ends with "blazing" 'B flat' major chords hammering out only the rhythm of the theme, the ringing vibrations left hanging in the air like some 'aural aura'.

There follow two scherzos, each of which begins and develops with extraordinary, sometimes manic intensity, yet ends up breaking down ... disintegrating. (Such is the rhythmic excitement of the first scherzo that it literally comes off the rails on the first page, fizzling up the keyboard like a balloon let go before its knot is tied!) The scherzo as a classical movement was generally a lightweight relief after a lengthy slow movement or after a serious first movement - a way to bridge a gap. Only with Beethoven's later works does the scherzo take on a crucial and pivotal purpose. Tsontakis, with a neo-Beethovenian brio, takes the decorative form of a scherzo - twice - and makes it the cornerstone of his building. Although each of the movements' pillars crumbles at its close, we are not left with ruins; rather the 'material' has given way to the 'spiritual'.

The first scherzo has many jazz and folk elements, from the finger-snapping syncopations of the opening to the finger-plucking strums of the movement's close. However, only the 'skin' is jazz-inspired; the'soul' is too anxious, too frantic, too ready to collapse, both rhythmically and emotionally. Between these two contrasting sections of the movement is much development, including a further variation on the Mozart theme "floating sweetly" between a blisteringly radiant "purge" of the scherzo's principal theme and a fumbling duet on the same theme, guitar and cimbalom all out of synchronization. The movement ends with simple, quietly plucked chords in the left hand, oblivious of the right hand's piercing dart - too high for a human scream - marked in the score "hollow, into an abyss".

There are only two possibilities after the disintegration of this first scherzo: either give up, or get up and begin again. The latter course is taken here with a vengeance, and the second scherzo is even more charged with frenetic energy than its first counterpart. The jazz and folk elements have disappeared, and have been replaced by an asymmetrical tarantella, that symbolic dance of lunacy and delirium. Not only are the triplets of the dance frequently expanded and contracted into fours and twos, but offbeat accents trip up the phrases, leaving us 'on the edge of our feet'. The semitonal cell which was so mportant in the first movement reappears at the crisis point of the movement, forming a "broad, sweeping" chorale which tries to stop the frantic flow of the tarantella. This is only a temporary solution, and the opening material of the scherzo returns in full force.

After further development of tarantella, Mozart variations and chorale, a climax is reached when the quiet, plucked chords from the close of the first scherzo return in full force - "weighty, profound" - forming a 'ground-bass' which continues to the end of the piece. The tarantella, its dancing days over, becomes distorted and fragmented over the left-hand chords, until, with an unexpected surge of energy, it re-emerges in Greek folk disguise as "wild ricochet" for a page-length of abandon. It exhausts itself and, above the omnipresent left-hand chords, the Mozart theme appears again, this time at the top of the instrument. It literally "runs out of keyboard" in its ascent, the final variation played on the wood of the piano-frame - the ghost's first appearance 'in the flesh' as it were. All is unreality, and this Masonic knocking on the door leads the piece into a world we are forbidden to enter. We have reached the threshold ... but can go no further.

with thanks to Matthew Paris and Eero Richmond of the American Music Center for helping with Ben Weber material

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Stephen Hough