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Hyperion Records

CDA67237 - Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 3 & Four Ballades
Landscape at Sunset by Pierre-Louis Kuhnen (1812-1877)
Fine Art Photographic Library / Galerie Berko

Recording details: January 2001
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: April 2001
Total duration: 59 minutes 5 seconds

‘Thoughtful, poetic and rich-toned readings of youthful Brahms. These pieces [Four Ballades] emerge as little gems, the songful Second as ear-catching as the haunted woodland sprites of the Third’ (Gramophone)

‘[Hough’s] new disc must be one of the current prime choices in these pieces’ (International Record Review)

‘Stephen Hough is among the very best of the current generation of performing artists … a thoughtful pianist who plays with great strength and depth of feeling, an impeccable technique, glowing tone colors and suitably flexible rhythms … his sense of structure is outstanding … There are other fine recordings of theses pieces … but none are better than these … His accounts are just plain wonderful … With music as beautiful and pianism as great as this – all in excellent sound – you can’t go wrong’ (American Record Guide)

‘The image of Brahms, the heavily bearded, middle-aged Viennese master of absolute music, has tended to eclipse his younger self. We rarely hear the remarkable works that the 20-year-old firebrand from Hamburg was writing, mainly for his own instrument, the piano—works behind which there is often a more-or-less open programme, and which show the influence of Liszt as much as that of Brahms's later, beloved mentor, Schumann. So, this excellent disc is doubly welcome. Stephen Hough, with his powerfully sprung but flexible rhythm, rich variety of colour and touch, and command of deep-toned pianissimo, gives a compelling account of both the sonata and the four ballades’ (The Sunday Times)

‘Hough has made many fine recordings, but none better than this one’ (Classic FM Magazine)

‘Stephen Hough is a great pianist, one of the finest now before the public … These are deeply pondered, brilliantly executed, and often ravishingly beautiful performances’ (Fanfare, USA)

‘If only Brahms had heard Hough, he would have carried on composing piano sonatas’ (The Evening Standard)

‘Hough casts a scattered, multicoloured light as if through stained glass … One could write a complete analytical essay on Hough’s breathtakingly illuminating playing of the Second Ballade, but no words could convey the beauty he brings to the Fourth … playing of the purest, most controlled musicality, an approach that is in itself quintessentially Brahmsian … one is conscious of having been face to face with genius’ (Pianist)

Piano Sonata No. 3 & Four Ballades
Allegro maestoso  [10'36]
Andante espressivo  [11'24]
D minor: Andante  [3'48]
D major: Andante  [5'52]

Following his recent dazzling Liszt recital (CDA67085), Stephen Hough turns his attention to the finest works of the young Brahms. Brahms's three piano sonatas are early works, culminating with the epic F minor Sonata. Spanning five movements, with dramatic and wildly virtuosic outer movements, and a hauntingly beautiful slow movement (described by Claudio Arrau as "the greatest love music after Tristan, and the most erotic"), this is one of the defining piano sonatas of the mid-nineteenth century.

The Ballades Op 10 are essentially miniature tone poems. The first is famously "after the Scottish Ballad Edward", based on a gruesome tale of patricide. Although there are no programmatic hints for the remaining three Ballades, their dramatic contrasts and intense poetry suggest some sort of narrative, even if Brahms did not disclose his inspiration.

As well as being attuned to the autumnal introspection of late Brahms, Stephen Hough also has a special empathy with the passion and athleticism of Brahms's early piano writing. This exciting disc confirms his reputation as one of the most distinguished pianists of his generation.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
History has tended to label Brahms as an abstract composer on the basis of a huge output of instrumental music that only occasionally gives a hint of its external stimuli. But in the early years it was different. The three piano sonatas written in 1852/3 all have slow movements based on or associated with texts. And they were soon followed in 1854 by a group of four pieces titled ‘ballade’, a term Brahms used only once again in piano music, at the other end of his life, for the Ballade in G minor Op 118 No 3 of 1893.

The Third Piano Sonata in F minor was completed in October 1853 and represents the culmination of this first and only phase of piano sonata composition. It has both the variety and length of the expansive Sonata in F sharp minor Op 2, yet also the more concise thematic processes of the Sonata in C major (published as Op 1, but composed second). Yet it also represents a new stage in which the sonata medium is now used almost symphonically in both pianistic texture and musical content. Brahms’s next piano work would be a sonata for two pianos, soon orchestrated as a symphony, which, though never completed, provided material for the first movement for the Piano Concerto in D minor and the funeral march of the German Requiem.

The first movement of the F minor Sonata has much the same feeling as this funeral march, the same sense of an unfolding drama enacted in a heavy 3/4 tempo which gains its force and character, if not from a single theme, then from a family of related rhythms and thematic shapes that dominate the entire movement. Though the outer form is straightforward, with a more-or-less literal recapitulation of the exposition and clear development and coda sections, the recurrent features give the movement an inexorable sense of growth—from the widely flung gestures of the opening, through the dour march that follows, the lyrical second theme with flowing accompaniment in A flat/D flat major, and even the ethereal reflections marked ‘pp dolce’ then ‘misterioso’ that preface the return of the opening.

That ethereal quality anticipates the mood of the ‘Andante espressivo’ slow movement (though it was composed earlier, as was its abbreviated recall as the fourth movement, marked ‘Rückblick’—‘Retrospect’). At least the first of these movements is apparently based on a poem, ‘Junge Liebe’ by C O Sternau, the opening of which Brahms adds at the head of his score, though noting only the poet, not the source.

Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint
Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint
Und halten sich selig umfangen
Twilight falls, the moonlight shines,
Two hearts are united in love,
and keep themselves in bliss enclosed.

Brahms reflects this text in the mirroring of his intimate descending upper melody in the lower voice and by the atmospheric ‘ben cantando’ passage that follows, with its delicate gently repeated notes and almost unearthly chordal spacings in the upper register. But the mood changes. The passionate intensity to which the middle section grows from its ‘extremely soft and sweet’ opening in the new key of D flat major certainly suggests more than just an idyllic scene, especially when the repetition of the opening section in the tonic is followed by a seemingly new ‘Andante molto’, again in D flat and beginning ppp, which effects a huge coda that rises to triumphant intensity, the movement’s opening phrase reappearing in the final ‘Adagio’. Comparison with the second and third strophes of Sternau’s poem seems to confirm the source of this intensity, with its imagery of prolonged affection through a thousand kisses and of enraptured bliss lasting until dawn. (Indeed, a quite separate song by Friedrich Silcher has even been suggested as prompting the opening melodic shape and expressive character of the distinctive final section, a love song at midnight—‘steh’ ich in finst’rer Mitternacht’.)

The fourth movement ‘Andante molto’, now in the relative minor key to D flat, B flat minor, recalls the opening idea of the earlier movement as the basis of a funeral march with ominous timpani effects. This in turn has been attributed to a source in another of Sternau’s poems, ‘Bitte’ (‘Request’), that Brahms also noted for setting, though he does not identify it in his score; here, in contrast, the poet tells rather of a love grown cold like a withered tree or a barren forest. The title ‘Intermezzo’ is Brahms’s own and perhaps indicates its role in separating the third from the fifth movement (unless, that is, it is retained from an earlier context, a conception apart from the sonata), thus casting the scherzo as the central, rather than penultimate movement of the work.

With this scherzo, back in the tonic, the music now reveals a more uninhibited character than at any preceding point: the marking ‘Allegro energico’ signifies a sense of huge muscular swing and release of pent-up energy. In total contrast is the trio, again emphasizing D flat major, with its broad, tranquil, almost hymnic melody that steadily expands its range and strength until it can reincorporate the rhythm of the scherzo for its restatement.

The huge musical stature of the young Brahms is nowhere more clearly revealed than in his capacity to create a finale that both crowns and unifies the mighty contrasts that precede it. His chosen form is a rondo, where large contrasts complement the detailed working of ideas—the same principle of the contrast of the scherzo and the trio, yet here taken a step further. Like that of the first movement, the opening is not straightforward, but blends thematic statement with a sense of introduction, here rhythmically tense and anticipatory in character, waiting to explode into action. The first contrasting theme is in F major, and is surely a tribute to Brahms’s first great musician friend, met earlier in 1853, the violinist Joachim, being based on his thematic motto F-A-E (‘Frei aber Einsam’). The return of the opening takes on something of the ethereal aspects of the earlier movements before the original course is resumed. But this is no symmetrical rondo. The second contrasting theme now dominates what follows. Beginning in D flat major, now clearly established as the secondary tonality to F minor, rather than the more usual relative major key of A flat, a broad cumulative melody—a successor to the trio theme—permeates the recall of the first theme and finally becomes the subject of a two-stage coda, a coda to the work as well as to the movement; the theme even appears as an accompaniment to itself in shorter notes, in a feat of rhythmic excitement in the tonic major that represents the complete antithesis of the struggle with which the work began.

Like the ‘Andante’ of the F minor Sonata, the first of the Ballades Op 10 refers to a text, in this case inscribed ‘after the Scottish ballad Edward’ in Herder’s German translation from the original source in Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. It is a gruesome tale of patricide related through the question and answer of mother to son, with the shocking ending that reveals the murder as at the mother’s behest. Brahms was also to set this text as a powerful duet for tenor and bass with piano, Op 75 No 1. But comparison with the strophic form of the duet shows that the piano piece is not a song without words. Though commentators have shown a rhythmic parallel between the mother’s questions and son’s initially elusive answers and Brahms’s two opening ideas, the music does not fit fully, nor entirely naturally.

Dein Schwert, wie ist’s von Blut so rot? Edward, Edward!
Dein Schwert wie ist’s von Blut so rot, und gehst so traurig her? – O!
O, ich hab’ geschlagen meinen Geier todt, Mutter, Mutter!
O, ich hab’ geschlagen meinen Geier todt, und keinen hab’ ich wie er – O!
Why does your Brand sae drop wi’ blude, Edward, Edward,
Why does your Brand sae drop wie blude, and why sae sad gang ye, O?
O, I hae kill’d my hawk, sae gude, mither, mither,
O, I hae kill’d my hawk, sae gude, and I had nae mehr but he, O

Rather, Brahms’s designation indicates a freer relation, an allusion to these words, enabling the piano to capture the contrast between the mother’s questioning (in the opening ‘Andante’) and the son’s response (‘poco più moto’), without the rigid poetic repetitions. Furthermore, Brahms creates a rounded musical form, with development in the major key and varied reprise, which, though it cannot mirror the mounting tension of the relentless questioning, revelations and final curse of the son—‘the curse of hell fraie me sall ye bare … sic counsels ye gave to me, O!’—enables a more powerful musical form to be built. The fragmenting reprise of the opening question is perhaps intended as an ironic reflection on it by the composer—his means of communicating the real truth. With its bleak bare intervals, its stark rhythmic repetitions, its developmental reiterations of the son’s response with a relentless triplet accompaniment of orchestral force, and finally its disintegrating reprise, the piece stands as nothing other than an extraordinary tone poem for piano. And, through its similarities to the first movement of the F minor sonata, it makes one sense even more strongly a hidden background to that movement.

No programmatic hints are provided for Ballades 2, 3 and 4, but the intense contrasts of Nos 2 and 3 suggest that more may have been present than the score indicates. In No 2, the reflective opening section, an ‘Andante’ based on a typically Brahmsian gapped figure (rising F sharp – A – F sharp), yields to an extensive central section at twice the speed (‘Allegro non troppo’), with an insistent rhythm rising from mf to ff that recalls the dramatic cumulation of the ‘Edward’ ballade. Also enclosed is a highly atmospheric ‘molto staccato e leggiero’ passage before a subtly varied reprise of the opening. Atmospheric keyboard effects are even more evident in No 3. Though titled ‘Intermezzo’, this is an extraordinary scherzo in 6/8 metre, with the same rhythmic impact as Brahms’s very first published piano work, the Scherzo in E flat minor Op 4 of 1851, yet with a much more elusive and dramatic quality, perhaps suggesting a nether world of demons or sprites. The middle section explores high-lying chordal sonorities, then, in contrast, single sounds at the extremes of the keyboard, marked ppp. These dynamic features effect a complete transformation of the opening section when it returns, now marked ‘sempre pp molto leggiero’. Such extraordinary writing shows how much Brahms understood his own instrument, and to what extent his style discarded such expressionistic features as he moved, after 1854, to different genres and to a focus on the more formal demands of large-scale chamber and orchestral composition.

Only in No 4 does an attributable style emerge—a Schumannesque song melody and accompaniment alternates with a section of intimate decoration of a slow inner-voice melody (again very Schumann-like) before the varied reprise of both. Now the first section is given an entirely new chordal sequel, while the second, transposed into B minor, is fashioned into a coda with wistful returns of the opening phrase that gradually motion the music towards its eventual serene close in the major key of B.

Michael Musgrave © 2001

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