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Hyperion Records

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Landscape at Sunset by Pierre-Louis Kuhnen (1812-1877)
Fine Art Photographic Library / Galerie Berko
Track(s) taken from CDA67237
Recording details: January 2001
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: April 2001
Total duration: 21 minutes 28 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)

Four Ballades, Op 10
composer
1854

D minor: Andante  [3'48]
D major: Andante  [5'52]

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

from notes by Michael Musgrave © 2001

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