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Hyperion Records

CDA67824 - Liszt & Grieg: Piano Concertos
Winter Night in the Mountains (1901/2) by Harald Oscar Sohlberg (1869-1935)
© Nationalmuseum, Stockholm / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67824

Recording details: June 2011
Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2011
DISCID: 82102C0B
Total duration: 68 minutes 43 seconds

GRAMOPHONE CHOICE
THE SUNDAY TIMES CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK
INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW 'OUTSTANDING' AWARD
INTERNATIONAL PIANO CHOICE

'Performances which ideally blend poetry and virtuosity … the Bergen Philharmonic, a fast-rising orchestra under their music director Andrew Litton, are excellent partners. This is a self-recommending issue' (The Mail on Sunday)

'Stephen Hough continues to bemuse as a pianist so free from difficulty that he can soar, inflect and alter the course of a musical argument at the drop of a hat … he expresses a personality all his own, brilliantly alert to mercurial changes of mood and clearly riding on the crest of a wave of success. With technique honed to a state of diamond-like brilliance, he gives us rapier-like cadenzas and glissandos that flash like summer lightning' (Gramophone)

'There are so many recordings of all three of these works that it's fair to ask: can we really be doing with any more? Yes, if they're in this kind of intriguing and appealing class … Hough's scintillating expertise is complemented by Andrew Litton and the orchestra's engaging and live-wire support … it's a credit both to them and to the music itself that it sounds so fresh here, while Hough finds new loveliness in it without ever descending into point-making. A pleasing and … thought-provoking release' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Does the world really need another recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto? The answer has to be an emphatic yes when the soloist is the barnstorming Stephen Hough, a pianist with the fascinating ability to take a venerable work, strip it of its patina and present it as though for the very first time … highly recommended' (The Observer)

'Time and again, Hough's traversals of familiar works are played with such insight, probity and sage musical understanding that we feel almost as if we are hearing them for the first time … each phrase is shaped with the utmost refinement within an exquisitely fluid tempo that is perfectly matched by Litton and his musicians … this full-blown, go-for-broke, unapologetically Romantic approach yields one of the most intensely dynamic, emotionally authentic readings of this score we are likely to hear for some time … Stephen Hough's steady ascent to the summit of his profession exhibits equally supreme mastery of his instrument and the deep humanity from which it has flowered' (International Record Review)

'One of the Liszt bicentenary's prime releases, from Britain's greatest living magician of the keyboard' (The Sunday Times)

'Hough dispels the clouds of unknowing with inventive power and technical brilliance, eloquently supported by the Bergen Philharmonic and Andrew Litton. His reading, while dramatic and unconstrained, remains essentially poetic … Litton's warm-toned orchestra deploys its most important instruments, the ears of its players, to engage with Hough's music making, magnifying the impassioned fire and lyrical intensity of the Grieg' (International Piano)

Liszt & Grieg: Piano Concertos
Quasi adagio  [4'40]
Allegro animato  [1'37]
Adagio  [6'10]

A concerto album from Stephen Hough is always a significant event. For this new recording Stephen travelled to Bergen—Grieg’s home town—to join forces with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in performances of Grieg and Liszt that are set to become landmark recordings of all three concertos.

Grieg’s A minor Piano Concerto, with its plethora of great tunes, is one of the most popular of all Romantic works, while Liszt’s two highly original concertos present unique challenges to both pianist and orchestra. These performances are exciting, magisterial and highly coloured, with breathtaking virtuosity harnessed to poetic refinement and finesse—hallmarks of Stephen’s playing that have already helped his concerto recordings to win two Gramophone ‘Record of the Year’ accolades.

Stephen Hough and Andrew Litton continue the astonishing success of their collaboration in Rachmaninov’s concertos, Hyperion’s fastest-selling recording. The Bergen players provide freshly idiomatic support in the Grieg and revel in the sumptuous scoring of the Liszt. The results are thrilling, and this deserves a place in any music lover’s collection, no matter how familiar the music.

Released to coincide with the twin anniversaries of Liszt’s birth (200 years ago) and Stephen’s own 50th birthday (in November), this recording is an apt celebration of both.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Few pieces can have had such a distinguished premiere as Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat major. Stepping before a stiffly attired aristocratic audience in Weimar on 17 February 1855 was not only the composer as soloist, but also Hector Berlioz as conductor. The venue, a hall in the Ducal palace, was intimate rather than imposing, yet appropriate enough in the light of Liszt’s position as court Kapellmeister. Berlioz’s presence was perhaps more of a surprise. He had travelled from Paris at Liszt’s invitation in order to take part in a ‘Berlioz week’, which was to include the first German production of his gently captivating oratorio The Childhood of Christ. Liszt swiftly seized the opportunity to engage him for the performance of the E flat major concerto too, no doubt remembering similar collaborations in Paris many years before, when he had enthusiastically played under Berlioz’s baton.

But for Liszt’s own career, the premiere of his first concerto had come two decades too late. He had already retired from regular concertizing. During his dazzling days as a touring virtuoso, he mostly played Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Weber’s Konzertstück, or the multi-authored Hexaméron when performing with orchestra. The last-named was an entertainingly trashy set of variations on a theme from Bellini’s I puritani, composed by an unlikely committee of artists consisting of Chopin, Czerny, Pixis, Herz, Thalberg and Liszt himself. The fact that Liszt did not publish an original concerto of his own until well over forty years of age was, however, utterly bizarre, and could not help but give grist to the mill of the numerous critics who claimed that he was a pianist of genius with zero creativity as a composer.

To understand this, we have to look a little at the typical career path of a concert pianist in the early nineteenth century. Pianists usually performed their own compositions, rather than the dauntingly enormous repertoire of standard ‘masterworks’ that we expect today (from Bach fugues and Beethoven sonatas onwards). In other words, a celebrated virtuoso like Johann Nepomuk Hummel mostly played Hummel (including over six piano concertos), Henri Herz played Herz (eight concertos), and Chopin played Chopin (two concertos) when he could be persuaded to perform in public at all. Even Liszt’s great rival Sigismond Thalberg had published an early concerto of his own. It was, admittedly, a pretty miserable piece, but at least it was there. A piano concerto, in other words, functioned like a standard calling card for an itinerant performer.

Liszt initially intended to conform to this custom. The German pianist-composer Ignaz Moscheles (himself the fertile begetter of eight concertos) heard the young prodigy play his own piano concerto (containing ‘chaotic beauties’, according to Moscheles) in London in 1827. This seems to have been one of two adolescent essays in the genre composed around 1825. They were, however, never published, and are long lost. A few years later, Liszt sketched out another concerto, tellingly in E flat major, the key of Beethoven’s Emperor. He had evidently completed a tentative draft by 1835. This was the basis of the Piano Concerto No 1 heard on this recording, and one of a number of works written around this time (including the amazingly avant-garde Harmonies poétiques et religieuses) intended to establish Liszt’s new significance as a composer. But these best-laid plans were thwarted by the unexpected pregnancy of his inconveniently married mistress, Marie d’Agoult. The couple eloped from Paris to Geneva. Plans for Liszt to burst forth fully fledged as a creative genius were reluctantly put on hold.

After several years of inspiring travel with Marie through Switzerland and Italy (memorialized in some of his finest piano music—the almost cinematic Années de pèlerinage), Liszt returned in 1839 to the neglected draft of his E flat major concerto. Not only did he revise it thoroughly, but he also worked on a new concerto in A major (eventually to become the Piano Concerto No 2) and, confusingly for future musicologists, yet another concerto in E flat. The last piece (based on a few threadbare themes from Liszt’s juvenile piano music) was soon thought unworthy by the composer himself, and discarded. It has, in recent years, been reconstructed and recorded—which allows everyone quickly to confirm for themselves the correctness of Liszt’s verdict.

Yet Liszt was still not happy with the two concertos that remained. He notably neither performed nor published them during nearly a decade of concert touring. It was only when he settled down in 1848 as Kapellmeister in Weimar that he returned to the manuscripts, subjecting them to further rounds of revisions. The E flat major concerto was, at long last, published in 1857. In the same year, Liszt’s pupil Hans von Bronsart premiered its sister piece in A major, with the composer conducting. But the second concerto had to wait until 1863 before appearing in print, when it was graciously dedicated to its original soloist.

After this more than elephantine gestation period, Liszt knew that expectations would be high for both concertos. And he responded with two of the most remarkably original pieces of the era. We can certainly see the influence of Beethoven’s Emperor on the first concerto, and indeed of Weber’s Konzertstück on both pieces (most especially in the triumphal marches), but that aside, novelty reigns.

Liszt had long shown an interest in reshaping the concerto form. In a journal article of 1837, he openly mused on the future of the genre. Traditionally, a concerto comprised three distinct movements, he wrote, yet Mendelssohn, Moscheles and others were beginning to join these together, treading a path towards a new form in which individual movements would be blended into one. We might add that Beethoven, as so often, had anticipated the procedure in his Emperor Concerto. Here the slow movement is subtly linked to the last. It was one of several elements of Beethoven’s concertos inspired by contemporary performance practices, such as the improvisation by pianists of modulatory transitions between movements. In the Emperor Concerto, however, the transition is actually written in to the score, and—even more radically—the orchestra joins in, just as it also participates in the initial ‘prelude’ to the first movement, and unexpectedly butts in to the soloist’s cadenza.

Liszt adapted several aspects of Beethoven’s scheme for his own E flat major concerto, including the sharing between piano and orchestra of the opening flourish. The piece is divided into four relatively short sections (to use the term ‘movement’ would have misleadingly traditional implications), the last three linked together. We first hear an imposingly concise Allegro maestoso in E flat major, which functions like an introductory overture. In a witty letter commenting on the concerto, Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow satirized the typical critical reaction to his master’s music by fitting the words ‘Das versteht ihr Alle nicht. Ha, ha!’ (‘This is something you all don’t understand’) to the rhythm of the opening theme. But things have moved on since then, and listeners to this recording may well find the critics’ confusion more difficult to understand than the music.

A raptly lyrical Quasi adagio in B major (the same key as the Emperor’s slow movement) follows. Here the piano takes on the role of an opera singer, further underlined by the appearance of passionate recitative passages against an agitated orchestral accompaniment. We can easily imagine suitably heartbreaking words. A mischievously scherzo-like Allegretto vivace, piquantly characterized by a tinkling triangle, quickly changes the mood. Akin to a fairy ballet from a French grand opera, this section provoked particular condemnation from contemporary German reviewers, who lamented the scandalous use of theatrical percussion in a supposedly ‘serious’ concerto. Present-day listeners are, once more, unlikely to be especially appalled. The final Allegro marziale animato acts as a comprehensive recapitulation, rounding up themes from all three previous sections, but also changing their character. Most strikingly, the soulful tenor of the Adagio now appears in uniform, and makes a swaggering entry with a brusque military march.

The Piano Concerto No 2 in A major is even more closely knitted together, unfolding in one continuous movement after the fashion of Weber’s Konzertstück. Indeed, the orchestration of the sensuously nostalgic opening melody, Adagio sostenuto assai with a pronounced Hungarian tinge, obviously alludes to the beginning of the earlier piece. The quite exquisite continuation of this tune, wreathed in gossamer figuration by the piano, is one of Liszt’s finest moments. It leads into a contrastingly tormented Allegro agitato assai, by the conclusion of which we shall have heard all of the melodic material the composer intends to use for the rest of the work. Accordingly, the songful Allegro moderato that follows again features the suave opening theme, this time given to a solo cello accompanied by the piano. In fact, the delicate interaction between the piano and individual orchestral instruments, after the fashion of chamber music, is a particularly attractive aspect of both Liszt’s concertos. This interlude moves adeptly into a stirring Allegro deciso, using the dramatic themes from the earlier Allegro agitato assai. We can hardly help noticing that Liszt’s piano-writing in this section must have been the catalyst for Tchaikovsky’s crashing chords at the opening of his famous first concerto.

There is now another military march—Marziale, un poco meno allegro—in store for us, marking the beginning of the recapitulation and, as in the E flat major concerto, consisting of a triumphal transformation of a lyrical tune. ‘This style of summarizing and rounding off an entire piece at the end is rather unique to me’, wrote Liszt with a certain amount of pride, although it has to be said that the procedure has also attracted repeated volleys of criticism, particularly in relation to the second concerto, where the ‘vulgarization’ of an originally distinguished melody has been greeted with a sad shake of the head. Mahler, of course, often adopts a similar approach, but tends to get away with it owing to the alleged ‘irony’ in his music. Liszt is regarded as all too sincere. Ultimately, there is nothing to argue about—either listeners like the effect, or they do not, as the case may be. To somewhat quieten any qualms, the soloist does at least bring back the main tune once more in a dreamily syncopated form before launching into a quicksilver coda. Hungarian gypsy inflections, glissandi and clashing cymbals alternate between piano and orchestra. It may not necessarily be ‘in the best possible taste’, but it is a lot of fun. Raucous entertainment may occasionally be preferable to sublime boredom.

Liszt’s comprehensively catholic tastes in musical style happily embraced Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. He was, in fact, one of its earliest admirers, and a generous supporter of the then little-known Bergen-born composer. The concerto was composed in 1868, not in Norway but in Denmark. In order to work undisturbed, the hypersensitive Grieg had sought some tranquil rural refuge, and found it in the picture-postcard village of Sölleröd. Peace was further ensured by the dispatch of his wife and presumably less than tranquil baby to her parents in Copenhagen. The composer, however, was not entirely alone—he had brought along two friends for company, the publisher Emil Horneman and the pianist Edmund Neupert. Neupert was to premiere the piece, and it is evident that he and Grieg collaborated on the piano-writing, although the rumour that the concerto’s cadenza was actually written by the pianist is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, Neupert scored a stunning success at the first performance in Copenhagen the following year. Anton Rubinstein was in attendance—indeed, he even lent his piano for the occasion—as was the Danish composer Niels Gade and a host of lesser luminaries. All of them ‘applauded with all their might’, Neupert later wrote to Grieg. The latter, frustratingly, could not be present at his own triumph on account of unavoidable commitments in Norway.

Despite this enthusiastic reception, Grieg actually had some difficulty in persuading a publisher to accept the concerto—surely one of the ironies of business history. In fact, the piece was ushered into print only in 1872. It was, therefore, with merely the manuscript in his hand that Grieg visited Liszt in Rome in 1870 in order to get the great man’s blessing for his creative efforts. Liszt, surrounded by a coterie of admiring female acolytes, sight-read the piece with expert aplomb. He was gratifyingly captivated by the national elements in the work, and especially the modal inflections of the grand tune at the close. According to Grieg himself: ‘He stretched out his arm commandingly like an emperor and shouted “G, G! Not G sharp! Bravo!”.’ Taking farewell of his delighted younger colleague, he added the unforgettable words: ‘You carry on, my friend. You have the right stuff in you. And don’t ever let them frighten you!’

It is simple to see what attracted Liszt and Rubinstein in what was soon to become the most popular of all concertos. There is, to be sure, little that is original about the structure of the work—a more or less ‘sonata-form-made-easy’ Allegro molto moderato first movement, a hymn-like Adagio second movement (shades of Beethoven’s Emperor once again), and an acerbically bouncy Allegro moderato molto e marcato finale, clearly influenced by the vigorous Halling folk-dance (in Grieg’s day a fixture at Norwegian weddings). But what really scores is the concerto’s magnificently memorable melodic invention—still irresistible even after 140 years of over-exposure—and the quasi-herbal intensity of its harmonization.

The latter has often-overlooked links to Mendelssohn’s so-called ‘Ossianic manner’: not surprisingly, perhaps, as both composers were influenced by Nordic national music. Indeed, the first subject tune of Grieg’s opening movement has a very similar harmonic and melodic outline to the Allegro theme of the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, just as the famous ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt exactly follows a harmonic scheme from the Hebrides Overture (it is no coincidence that the Grieg pieces are also in the same keys as the Mendelssohn). Another unmistakeable allusion is to Schumann’s piano concerto. Grieg obviously adapted its opening flourish to begin his own work—possibly a memory of student days in Leipzig, when he heard Clara Schumann herself play her husband’s masterpiece.

But if the Grieg concerto looks back to Schumann and Mendelssohn, it also looks forward to Ignacy Paderewski, who might almost have had the Norwegian composer’s score wide open on his desk when he wrote his own A minor piano concerto in 1888. Grieg’s wonderful work had swiftly become a template for the ‘national’ concerto style. Now, Paderewski’s piece is an impressive achievement—so why is it so little played in comparison to its forebear? The answer is simple: Grieg, like the devil, has all the best tunes.

Kenneth Hamilton © 2011

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