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Hyperion Records

CDA67996 - In the Night
Keramisch-Mystisch (In der Art eines Stillebens) (1925) by Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: May 2013
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2014
Total duration: 77 minutes 9 seconds

'A new disc from Stephen Hough is always welcome. How will he surprise us this time and where will he take us? … there’s the dark and turbulent eponymous tone-poem and the far-from-restful presto finale of the 'Moonlight', given additional agitation by Hough’s spiky left-hand off-beats. The two adroitly chosen Nocturnes show that Chopin’s nocturnal reveries could be as dark and threatening in their own way as Hough’s, if his Sonata notturno luminoso is anything to go by. Angular, dissonant, fiery and often bleak, this work (18’23" in length) suggests, among its many images, ‘the irrational fears or the disturbing dreams which are only darkened by the harsh glare of a suspended, dusty light bulb’ (the composer’s useful route map in a note appended to Harriet Smith’s thoughtful booklet)' (Gramophone) » More

'Hough’s own Sonata … is rich in textural variety and harmonic colour, full of massive chunks of sound like sculpted blocks of marble lit from within, and quirky, obsessive toccatas that whirl by like a runaway roundabout that keeps changing direction. It is unsettling, playful and original … hearing a masterful pianist performing his own work is a special experience in itself … countless details prove rewarding: the smoky pedal in the C sharp minor Nocturne’s transition, the free-flying melodic lines of ‘In der Nacht’, the veiled duskiness of the Moonlight Sonata's opening movement' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'Hough's Sonata unfolds … with an immediately apparent structural logic and a harmonic vocabulary that conveys vivid emotional narrative. As one would expect from a pianist of Hough’s gifts, textures are imaginative, with plenty of excitement and variety. Interesting from the first hearing, it grows more so with repeated listening. Hough’s musical thinking has the same warmth and communicativeness as his performing persona, so that one looks forward to hearing more … the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata heard here is very good and deeply musical … the two Chopin Nocturnes, Op 27, on the other hand, are ethereal and abundantly poetic.

Though he’s recorded some, I’ve not heard Hough play Schumann before. What a pleasure it is! His Carnaval has great warmth and gentleness, along with appropriate doses of high spirits and antic, even slapstick humour. Extremely original in concept, this interpretation is seasoned throughout with a unique tempo rubato that is both apt and uncannily subtle. I don’t think I’ve sat through another Carnaval that was quite this much fun. You should have a listen' (International Record Review) » More

'Hyperion’s superb recording and Stephen Hough’s burnished sound make this a most appealing disc on the subject of music of the night … Hough gives a ‘Moonlight’ Sonata in a different league … finding cheeky accents in the central Allegretto and presenting an explosive finale. The two Chopin Nocturnes, both beautifully shaded and harmonically aware, precede Hough’s own Second Piano Sonata … Hough is his own finest interpreter, playing with a fierce belief in the score. Finally, Schumann’s Carnaval … the opening gestures are gloriously exuberant, introducing one of the finest readings available' (International Piano) » More

In the Night
Adagio sostenuto  [5'08]
Allegretto  [1'53]
Presto agitato  [7'05]

This latest recital album by ‘the thinking person’s virtuoso: an extraordinary pianist’ (The New York Times) takes the listener on a journey through that most intense and absorbing of nineteenth-century obsessions, the night. The Romantic night was one without sleep; where experiences are mutated through darkness. Stephen Hough’s thoughtful programming creates a new aural sphere for some of the most celebrated piano works in the repertoire.

Other recordings by Stephen Hough

Hough begins with Schumann’s troubled, reeling ‘In der Nacht’ from Fantasiestücke, and continues with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and Chopin’s two Op 27 Nocturnes.

With Schumann’s Carnaval we eavesdrop on one of the most vibrant parties in the nineteenth-century piano literature, with its panoply of brilliantly etched character sketches depicting both real people—such as Chopin and Paganini—and imaginary ones. Each movement is vividly contrasted; there are moments of unbridled ecstasy, elegant poise and elusive subtlety.

Also included is Stephen Hough’s own Piano Sonata No 2 ‘notturno luminoso’, which he describes as ‘about a different kind of night … the brightness of a brash city in the hours of darkness; the loneliness of pre-morning; sleeplessness and the dull glow of the alarm clock’s unmoving hours; the irrational fears which are only darkened by the harsh glare of a suspended, dusty light bulb'.

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The night is a subject that has fascinated composers and artists, novelists and poets for centuries. But it was in the nineteenth century that it arguably turned into an obsession, one that, as Stephen Hough’s Second Sonata (‘notturno luminoso’) demonstrates, exists to this day. Night can bring the darkest of thoughts—quite literally as in the case of Goya’s intensely private sequence of ‘Black Paintings’; its shadows offer a different perspective, a more mystical setting for contemplation, compared to the glare of daylight hours. By its nature it provides greater possibilities of romance but also of loneliness; it offers above all a sense of dislocation from the daily grind, whether achieved through a masked ball or the solitude of a moonlit lake.

Equally vital to the artistic soul is the disturbing, disquieting nature of night, and it’s this that is to the fore in Schumann’s whirling In der Nacht from his Op 12 Fantasiestücke. This set of eight pieces was inspired by Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier by one of the composer’s favourite writers, E T A Hoffmann. The pieces weren’t intended as a unified cycle, and Schumann urged his beloved Clara to select individual numbers from the set to include in her piano recitals. Schumann’s imaginary alter egos Florestan and Eusebius make frequent appearances in these brief but vividly imagined pieces: the fretful outer sections of In der Nacht could be aligned to the highly strung Florestan, while the more introverted Eusebius colours the calmer central cantilena. After writing it, Schumann commented that the piece reminded him of the story of Hero and Leander, wherein Leander swam across the sea for nightly trysts with Hero, who guided him by a lamp until, one fateful night, a storm blew out the light, causing him to drown in the waves and her to jump to the same watery grave.

That Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C sharp minor ‘Moonlight’, Op 27 No 2, has become so outrageously well known among the sonatas is not simply thanks to its nickname but also down to the fact that its alluring first movement is well within the reach of the capable amateur. It was Ludwig Rellstab, indifferent poet and self-styled music critic, who inadvertently altered the sonata’s history when he described it as evoking ‘a boat visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne’. Although he was referring to the first movement, ‘Moonlight’ soon became the shorthand by which the entire piece was known.

Beethoven directs the first movement, with its slow-moving harmonies, to be played ‘with extreme delicacy and without dampers’, an instruction that too many pianists—amateur or otherwise—have taken as an invitation for extreme lethargy. ‘Without dampers’ is a request to hold down the sustaining pedal, which would have created a haloed effect on a piano of 1801, but to follow that instruction literally on a modern instrument creates more of a pea-souper than a delicate mist. This is followed by a fleeting Intermezzo (‘A flower between two abysses’, as Liszt evocatively put it) before the music erupts into a finale of great fire, borne away by unstoppable arpeggios, replete with explosive fortissimo chords.

So lulled are we by the quiet beauty of the sonata’s opening that we scarcely realize we are witnessing a revolution: rather than the traditional sonata form, with most of its musical heft borne by the first movement, Beethoven instead creates an emotional and literal crescendo from first movement to last. Not for nothing did he give this and its Op 27 partner the designation ‘quasi una fantasia’. This sonata is so much more than the sum of its parts: it is nothing less than a harbinger of the extreme experimentation that was to bear such sublime fruit in the late sonatas.

John Field may have invented the nocturne as a Romantic piano genre, but it was Chopin who truly made it soar. Not all of his contemporaries quite appreciated this, however. Ludwig Rellstab, he of ‘Moonlight’ fame, eleven years Chopin’s senior, crossly wrote: ‘Where Field smiles, Chopin makes a grinning grimace, where Field sighs, Chopin groans; where Field puts some seasoning into the food, Chopin empties a handful of pepper … if one holds Field’s charming nocturnes before a distorting, concave mirror, one gets Chopin’s work.’ Others showed rather more insight, the American critic Henry T Finck, for instance, writing in 1899: ‘Mendelssohn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Weber in Oberon have given us glimpses of dreamland, but Chopin’s nocturnes take us there bodily, and plunge us into reveries more delicious than the visions of an opium eater.’

As well as the night-time connotations of the word itself, equally important in Chopin’s nocturnes is the imitation of a vocal style, the melody often being subjected to more and more elaboration against a flowing, frequently arpeggiated backdrop. Op 27 breaks from the precedent of the previous sets (Opp 9 and 15) in consisting of two rather than three pieces and playing up their contrast more dramatically. Chopin was obviously pleased with the results, following this pattern in the remainder of the nocturnes published in his lifetime. Nevertheless, the two pieces are no more linked than the constituent numbers of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, and the composer himself sometimes performed them separately in his recitals.

No 1 in C sharp minor pits a tragedy-laden melody against an unnerving harmonic backdrop that gradually increases in vehemence—the very antithesis of the nocturne as gentle night reverie—with a middle section that ratchets up the tension.

No 2 in D flat major opens with an ethereally beautiful theme in which right-hand roulades move freely above a simple bass-line. A second idea (not unrelated), in thirds, proves ripe for variation, the landscape darkening as the elaborations become ever more phantasmagorical. By contrast, the initial idea remains basically unchanged on each reappearance, its sense of stillness deepening with every repetition. Striking, too, is the way Chopin binds the nocturne into a single entity via the left hand, whose figuration is unwavering right up until the penultimate bar.

With Schumann’s Carnaval we eavesdrop on one of the most vibrant parties in nineteenth-century piano literature, with its panoply of brilliantly etched character sketches depicting both real people—such as Chopin and Paganini—and imaginary ones, not least Schumann’s old friends Florestan and Eusebius, as well as figures from the commedia dell’arte. Liszt was an early champion of the work, commenting that in time it would find its true place alongside Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

Schumann wrote Carnaval in 1834–5 and, as so often with his piano works, it was inspired by a woman—not Clara in this case (though she does put in an appearance, in No 11, ‘Chiarina’), but an earlier love, Ernestine von Fricken, a fellow piano student of Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck. Robert and Ernestine had got as far as getting secretly engaged, before her father weighed in, putting an abrupt stop to the affair. Like Clara, Ernestine gets her own portrait, in ‘Estrella’ (No 13). But her spirit pervades much more of the work than is immediately obvious, with Schumann incorporating the letters of the town from which she hailed, Asch—which in German translates as the notation A, E flat, C and B—to form the basis of all but two pieces in Carnaval, like a secret cipher. Schumann, in a letter to his mother, described Ernestine as having a ‘wonderfully pure, childlike character, delicate and thoughtful’.

If ever there were a work that demanded a completely unbridled approach it is this one and it is surely no coincidence that one of the composer’s favourite writers, Jean Paul, once wrote, ‘a masked ball is perhaps the most perfect medium through which poetry can interpret life’. Though some of the movements pass by in mere seconds, each is vividly characterized. The ‘Préambule’ (No 1) boldly sets the scene, its Più molto brillante suggesting that this is to be the most sensational of revelries. Schumann delights in juxtaposing unlike with unlike: ‘Pierrot’ (No 2) is a stubborn fellow, landing a belligerent musical surprise at the end; by contrast ‘Arlequin’ (No 3) is all grace and wit, while ‘Estrella’ (No 13) is full of passion and charm, making Schumann’s infatuation clear; ‘Pantalon et Colombine’ (No 15) seem almost to fall over one another in their excitement. Schumann’s fictional alter egos are, as ever, strongly contrasted: ‘Eusebius’ (No 5), with a sinuous seven-in-a-bar, is complex, introverted and not without a wistful charm, while ‘Florestan’ (No 6) enters stealthily but can’t resist showing off to his audience, before dancing out of sight. ‘Paganini’ (No 17) is fittingly breakneck, ‘Papillons’ (No 9), all gossamer tulle.

Nor does Schumann let us forget that a ball is as much about grace as colourful characters, and there is style aplenty in numbers such as the supremely elegant ‘Valse noble’ (No 4), the piquant ‘Réplique’ (No 8) and the ‘Valse allemande’ (No 16), in which the composer revels in dynamic contrasts.

It is tempting to linger over the beauties of ‘Chopin’ (No 12), though it is marked Agitato, while ‘ASCH–SCHA (Lettres dansantes)’ (No 10) has a supple elegance, a quality that is equally evident in ‘Aveu’ (No 18). Though each piece is a character sketch, there is also a clear sense of an emotional crescendo through the entire work. ‘Pause’ (No 20) offers a thrilling upbeat to the rip-roaring ‘Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins’ (No 21), Schumann’s gleeful attack on all things musically base in which the Davidsbündler—upholders of cultural standards—triumphantly trample the philistines underfoot.

Harriet Smith © 2014

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