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Hyperion Records

CDA67564 - Tsontakis: Man of Sorrows; Berg: Piano Sonata; Webern: Variations
CDA67564
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: July 2007
Total duration: 66 minutes 37 seconds

'A five-star performance and recording' (Gramophone)

Man of Sorrows Brilliantly written for the keyboard and scintillatingly orchestrated … The piece is superly played and recorded, patently sincere and easily assimilable' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is a serious work of substance and integrity, challenging and rewarding, provocative in the best possible sense. It is performed here with the utmost care and devotion' (American Record Guide)

'George Tsontakis's piano concerto, Man of Sorrows, first performed by pianist Stephen Hough, conductor Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and played on this new release with great conviction and concentration by the same forces, is a post-Messiaen composition. All the trademarks of the great French maitre permeate Tsontakis's concerto: the angular melodies, sumptuous harmonies, glittering, bell-like piano writing, and a mood of contemplation. To call it eclectic is not a criticism, just an observation of a work that is hypnotic and profound. Hough's superlative performances of piano music by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern also deserve maximum exposure' (The Herald)

'This excellent disc from pianist Stephen Hough and Hyperion showcases the piano works of American composer George Tsontakis in combination with works from the Second Viennese School … Tsontakis was recently awarded the Grawemeyer Award from the University of Louisville; it’s one of compositions’ richest and most prestigious prizes, and Tsontakis’ star is definitely on the rise … Man of Sorrows is a musical meditation on an image of a crucifix, and although there are religious undertones, there’s no overt program to connect the six movements. The music is sometimes startling and chaotic, but it has a seriously melodic current that runs throughout. Stephen Hough’s playing is magnificent, and Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra provide superb accompaniment. The solo piano pieces that complete the disc offer a compelling link between the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As usual for Hyperion, the sound quality is nothing short of superb. Man of Sorrows was recorded live, and the recording team did an excellent job of balancing Stephen Hough’s piano with the orchestra. On the solo pieces, the piano occupies a firm position in the soundstage and offers reference quality sound. Highly recommended' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'This new recording of works by the American George Tsontakis, Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, is well worth buying. Tsontakis might draw on mathematics in shaping his music, but you'd hardly notice that amid the powerful, well-orchestrated emotions of his work' (Scotland on Sunday)

'Man of Sorrows is an expansive 40 minutes, a tone poem for piano and orchestra with, in the composer's words, a religious dynamic and complexity. There is colossal assurance in the way Tsontakis measures out his material. He is not afraid of the sumptuous and Hough is allowed to glitter, which he does with élan … inevitably, one hears the world of Messiaen, particularly in Hough's incisive playing while, in the background, the orchestra counters with imposing and resolutely orthodox tonality. This builds up to a heart-stopping climax … the estimable Dallas Symphony Orchestra with conductor Andrew Litton, who squired Hough in his 2004 set of Rachmaninov Concertos, make it a memorable, full-blooded occasion' (The New Zealand Herald)

'First heard in Dallas in September 2005 (those performances form the basis of this recording), Tsontakis’s 40-minute work takes the listener on a compelling journey in which the musical language is familiar yet unpredictable and subtly personal. This is a pictorial and revealing score, which pulsates with rhythm (and yields a description personal to the listener) and is often expressively beautiful, and is also about something both specific yet intangible' (ClassicalSource.com)

'A masterfully conceived and performed disc of piano music that, while it will never be in the concert hall mainstream, will never, in great performance, exhibit less than searing power' (The Buffalo News, USA)

'Man of Sorrows is a fascinating, prismatic work that has an iridescent orchestral texture combined with writing that gives the impression of being atonal and impressionistic but never really wanders too far from a clear narrative line. The blunted but shining music brings to mind those qualities in Olivier Messiaen. Also like the devout late French master, Tsontakis found inspiration for the piece in an icon. The fine recording on Hyperion is by pianist Stephen Hough, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andrew Litton. Rounding out the disc are piano works of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, which only underscores that Tsontakis isn't all that removed from the Second Viennese School' (Times Union, USA)

'Progressing from innocence through crisis, optimism, somber resignation and finally arriving at a renewal of the questioning innocence of the opening, the work is a effective and emotionally engaging piece, readily accessible and approachable' (RecordsInternational.com, USA)

'Hough and the Dallas orchestra sound like a composer's dream team. There are many great recordings of Berg's post-Romantic thriller, but Hough's account has poetry of its own' (New Jersey Star Ledger)

'The stations of this Cross contain many moments that are very simply beautiful; the tinkling bells in ‘Shards' for example, which turn into a peal at the apprehension of resurrection within the crucifixion. However disparate the influences, Tsontakis succeeds in welding together a work of real spirituality, which will surely move every listener. Litton and the Detroit players are extremely sensitive, flexible interpreters. This is also a fine artist portrait of the CD's protagonist, Stephen Hough. Hough is a fine intellect who composes and champions much new music. The first Schoenberg piece, 'leicht, zart' and played by Hough with the utmost delicacy, might serve as a touchstone for this CD and for Hough's art … These pieces, and the Weberns, are magnum in parvo in Hough's fingers and worth the price of the disc on their own … an absolutely outstandingly realised project; two entirely complementary halves; deeply impressive playing and compositions of absolute integrity' (MusicalPointers.co.uk)

'Man of Sorrows is this essential American composer's first piano concerto. The music glistens and drips, like dewdrops—or sweet myrrh from an icon. Tinged by Messiaen (that sense of refracted light), it also conveys a rugged, ecstatic heart-song that feels related to Eastern Orthodoxy. It's exceptionally beautiful and commandingly performed on this disc' (San Jose Mercury News, USA)

'Bewitching, otherworldly and playful music … If ever a composer wanted to share a sheer joy in sound, it's Tsontakis … The Dallas Symphony Orchestra plays like a dream and Stephen Hough brings an Apollonian sense of beauty and control to the proceedings' (Metro)

'L'oeuvre se présente comme un long enchainement évoquant différent états de la fragilité humaine, à la fois très accessible et très codé … avec des orientations émotionelles remarquablement limpides. De même que la gracieuse Sarabesque (2004), Man of Sorrows fait au piano les honneurs d'une écriture fraîche' (Diapason, France)

Tsontakis: Man of Sorrows; Berg: Piano Sonata; Webern: Variations
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Ecce homo  [2'11]
Leicht, zart  [1'06]
Langsam  [0'55]
Sehr langsam  [1'04]
Etwas rasch  [0'36]
Sehr langsam  [1'01]
Sehr mässig  [1'52]
Sehr schnell  [0'41]
Ruhig fliessend  [3'54]

Fresh from his conducting debut with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the premiere of his cello concerto and the publication of his first book, Stephen Hough presents a new disc of fascinating repertoire.

George Tsontakis is a giant of the American contemporary music scene and the recent winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer award and the Charles Ives Living. Hough’s recording of his Ghost Variations for Hyperion (CDA67005) was nominated for a Grammy. Man of Sorrows was written for Stephen Hough and was premiered in 2005. This recording is taken from the world premiere. The work demonstrates Tsontakis’ muscular, expressive musical language, influenced by Beethoven and Messiaen. Inspired by medieval Byzantine icons of Christ, the Man of Sorrows, the six-movement work explores in sound the composer’s response to the suffering and passion of Jesus as represented in these serene religious artworks. Hough himself has also written and spoken extensively on the relationship between religion and music and performs the work with extraordinary sympathy and understanding.

George Tsontakis writes of his work: ‘By the time I began composing Man of Sorrows, I knew several things about it: that it would be cast in a religious dynamic and complexity, that Beethoven’s 33 ‘Diabelli’ Variations would play a part, that it would not be so much a ‘concerto’ as a tone poem for piano and orchestra with an abstract narrative, that it would be large-scale and that it would be dedicated to Stephen Hough, in essence and in spirit.’

This disc also includes iconic works from the Second Viennese School and a further piano work by Tsontakis.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
I cannot often enough warn against the overrating of analysis since it invariably leads to what I have always fought against: the knowledge of how something is made; whereas I have always tried to promote the knowledge of what something is — Arnold Schoenberg

A conversation with George Tsontakis is an invitation to surprise. The voice and demeanour, a legacy of Astoria, New York, do not prepare you for the ever-present curiosity and inquisitiveness of his interactions. And a certain bluffness and ease seem at odds with what one might expect from a much lauded composer and teacher who has been awarded two of composition’s richest and most prestigious prizes: the Charles Ives Living by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award.

During an informal chat following one of the performances from which this recording derives, Tsontakis paged through a copy of the score and pointed out a particularly evocative instruction—‘gnarly’—and smilingly confided that that was the best word to describe how he wanted that passage to sound. Then, moments later, his thoughts turned to the equally evocative titles of the movements of Man of Sorrows, and the wider non-denominational embrace he intended the music to achieve.

As the conversation progressed, it became clear that while he might discuss his inspirations and compositional procedures, his artistic imperatives lay in expression—What does the music say?

Of Man of Sorrows, first performed by Stephen Hough with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony in September 2005, the composer has written:

By the time I began composing Man of Sorrows, I knew several things about it: that it would be cast in a religious dynamic and complexity, that Beethoven’s 33 Diabelli Variations would play a part, that it would not be so much a ‘concerto’ as a tone poem for piano and orchestra with an abstract narrative, that it would be large-scale and that it would be dedicated to Stephen Hough, in essence and in spirit.
I also knew its title, in that a fifteenth-century icon of the Man of Sorrows I had first seen at the 1997 Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘Byzantium Exhibit’ would serve as the pictorial inspiration of the work. Owing to that icon, and others like it—which hold divinity and humanness in an inspiring balance—and to the graphic mirror-image of man-upon-cross, the piece evolved both musically as well as poetically into a work abounding in symmetry.
Without going too deeply into compositional detail, I can offer a quick outline of just a few of the elements that entered the work on conscious and unconscious levels, freely commingled. The number six plays a large role (the biblical number of incompleteness; of ‘falling short’) where often pairs of threes trade off. There are the six movements; the six tones of each of two whole-tone scales, used widely throughout as they shift, often by threes; the refracting three bantered words of ‘Muss es sein’ and ‘Es muss sein’; the almost otherworldly ‘dialectical’ chords in Diabelli Variation XX (not to mention the symmetry of that numbering) which are G minor7 and E7, chords that have only one note (D) in common but otherwise contain three tritone relationships between the remaining notes. I hear these two remarkable chords as human breaths—in, and out—perhaps sad, sorrowing, but essential, human, living.
The movement titles I chose are also commingled, at least chronologically. They began as only my personal ‘nicknames’ for them as I composed them. There is no narrative or history intended by those titles, only poetry and a degree of wonder.

Wonder and awe describe the opening of Man of Sorrows. Tsontakis refers to the feeling of awakening and discovery in Ecce homo as a ‘form of innocence’. Any specifically biblical connotation of the title makes way for a philosophical meditation. The same quiet will return at the conclusion of the piece, but transformed into a mature and universal serenity—a simplicity that can only be achieved through struggle.

Es muss sein(?) borrows its opening emphatic three-note phrase from the last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet in F, Op 135. Beethoven entitles the movement ‘Der schwergefasste Entschluss’ (the difficult or sober decision), then assigns three notes each to the plaintive question ‘Muss es sein?’ (Must it be?) and the affirmative response ‘Es muss sein! Es muss sein!’ (It must be!). We can’t be certain of Beethoven’s motivations, but his music suggests jubilation. Tsontakis’s Es muss sein(?) is dire—a challenge to the first movement—the exclamation point abandoned, the question mark appropriated. Labyrinthus leads into the confusion and meandering which ensues.

Lacrymosa (Stabat Mater) is a brief respite before the central crisis of Gethsemane: Shards, as martial threats play against the pianist’s glissandi. While the composer’s instruction is to play ‘like crystalline shards of glass’, this is also when we most clearly hear Tsontakis’s ‘breathing’ chords from Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The inhaling and exhaling gesture recurs throughout the work.

Perhaps borrowing from Beethoven’s ‘Es muss sein!’, Jesu Joy — Crucifixus opens optimistically, but the affirmations seem to echo into an unyielding sombreness. How permanent can the ecstasy be? Vir dolorum, ‘man of sorrows’, by returning to the piece’s opening innocence not as a beginning but as a resolution, seems to suggest that there are no certainties, no answers. ‘Es muss sein?’ It must be? Understanding that some questions have no answers is not the same thing as knowing that some questions require no answers.

Consider the times. Europe entering the second decade of the twentieth century and on the brink of world war. The artistic community continues to digest Picasso and his seminal Les demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, Joyce struggles to find a publisher for Dubliners, and a group of poets calling themselves Imagists seeks concision rather than elaboration to convey emotional density. Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces Op 19 of 1911 are as much a product of the experimental intellectual energies of this time as they are an expression of a community heading to disaster. In their five-minute duration we hear a grimness and uncertainty not lost on us today. If we take Schoenberg at his word and try to find a way into his music as it is rather than through how it was made, we may agree with the noted pianist and scholar Charles Rosen when he writes that Schoenberg’s is ‘the most expressive music ever written’.

Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op 1 (1908) is often referred to as a graduation piece. With no formal musical training, Berg met Schoenberg in 1904 and became a devoted pupil and lifelong friend. His direct studies with Schoenberg would continue for six years, and, like his fellow pupil Anton Webern, Berg never failed to extol his teacher’s dictum that any musical innovation could be made only after achieving a profound understanding of the traditions of the Western musical heritage. The sonata, despite its harmonic adventures, sounds firmly rooted in a late Romantic musical language. In fact, though no specific key is indicated, the piece hovers around the key of B minor—a key it shares with another great one-movement Romantic sonata, that of Franz Liszt.

The young Berg, still in his early twenties, presented the movement to Schoenberg as part of a longer projected composition, but was encouraged by his teacher to let the piece stand on its own. Beginning and ending in enigmatic quiet, the brief sonata manages to surmount turmoil and crisis in little more than ten minutes. As in Tsontakis’s Man of Sorrows, we return to the start but find that it is not the same.

The music of Berg, particularly his operatic works, have gained a universal acceptance. Even much of Schoenberg’s music has been granted a grudging approval by the musical audience. But Webern’s music still seems to stand outside the listener’s embrace, due, perhaps, to its reputation for angularity and abstraction. How informative it is to see the score of the Variations for piano Op 27 as published by Universal. Notes by Peter Stadlen, who gave the first performance of the variations in 1937, reveal a composer intent on anything but the abstract. Expression was paramount to Webern, as it was to his teacher Schoenberg who famously said: ‘My music is not modern, it is just badly played.’

Webern’s passionate instructions to Stadlen were so extreme that ‘notes had become almost incidental and were only regarded as carriers of expression’. Little wonder that Webern himself likened the first movement to a Brahms intermezzo, and the frolicking agility of the second movement to the flute-mad Badinerie of Bach’s B minor orchestral suite! If there is a bleakness heard in this music, most potently in the final movement, we must again recall the uncertainties of the times. By 1937, Schoenberg had fled to California, and Webern, whose music had been declared ‘degenerate’ after Hitler’s rise to power, faced his final years of isolation in Austria.

Sarabesque for solo piano, like the epic Ghost Variations (1991—recorded by Stephen Hough on Hyperion CDA67005), confirms George Tsontakis’s affinity for the piano. His writing revels in the sound of the instrument. Written for his friend Sarah Rothenberg, a pianist and Artistic Director of Da Camera of Houston, Tsontakis’s Sarabesque moves away from the well-known piano arabesques of Schumann and Debussy. In no way a simply decorative miniature, the piece conjures, in a few short minutes, a sonorous, open musical horizon.

The musical and the visual realms connect. We often reach for a visual metaphor when we try to describe a musical impulse. An inspiring confluence occurs with the artwork chosen for the cover of this recording. The artist Anthony Mastromatteo writes:

When Stephen Hough asked to use this particular painting as the cover image for this recording I was unaware of the music to be included. He later told me the pieces the painting would be associated with, and I could hardly contain myself. Something Arnold Schoenberg wrote in an essay entitled ‘Problems in Teaching Art’ clarified for me a change in the direction of my life at the age of twenty-seven, when, not born of choice but of necessity, and despite having no technical knowledge of painting, I embarked on a new career.
Schoenberg wrote: ‘I believe art is born of “I must”, not of “I can”. A craftsman “can”: whatever he was born with, he has developed, and so long as he wants to do something, he is able to. What he wants to do, he can do—good and bad, shallow and profound, new-fangled and old-fashioned—he can! But the artist must. He has no say in the matter, it is nothing to do with what he wants; but since he must, he also can. Perhaps he was not born with something; then he acquires it—manual dexterity, command of form, virtuosity.’
I was certainly no artist then and may not be one at this moment. I did, however, feel then as now that I must, and have since sought all that might give that ‘must’ concrete form.

Grant Hiroshima © 2007

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