Hyperion Records

Concerto for piano and orchestra No 1, Op 12
The first concerto has a less tensely argued counterpoint than some earlier works, particularly the String Quartet, Op 5 (1979). The virtuosic demands of the concerto form have eclipsed the nitty-gritty labyrinths of part-writing, but there is no sign yet of the romantic flowering which would grow from the final pages of the Symphony. There is rather a lanky, adolescent athleticism here, as if on this youthful frame no fat has yet formed. Behind the acrobatic high jinks, however, there is a darker side to the work in its use of two plague-inspired elements. The popular tune ‘Fortune, my Foe’, from the Anne Cromwell Virginal Book (1638) and other contemporary collections, is used in all three movements in various intervallic disguises; and the third movement is subtitled ‘Maccaber Dance’ after the Scottish adventurer Maccaber—described as being ‘half a skeleton’—who instituted a graveyard dance-procession in Paris during the plague which became known later as the ‘Danse Macabre’. Furthermore, the second movement was inspired by the section ‘Dream Fugues’ in De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater.

Three fortissimo unison Bs rip the piece open and introduce us to a world of steel and glass virtuosity; the thematic material is terse and frugal, its glittering octaves the leanest of chords—chops picked clean of meat. The whole first movement—thematic and harmonic material as well as accompanying figuration—derives from these unison Bs (theme 1) and from a motif based on three notes a semitone apart (A sharp, B and C) which stretch to a major third above (theme 2). Furthermore, theme 2 is arranged around three Bs and thus could be seen as a variation of theme 1. The mirror shape of theme 2 is a reflection of the movement’s overall mirror structure in both key and material:

Theme: 1 2 1 2 3 2 1 2 1
Key: B B C C A C# C C B

Theme 3 is the quote from ‘Fortune, my Foe’, mentioned above.

The slow movement is a bleak landscape of loneliness which opens with a haunting, rocking theme for solo piano based on a series of deceptive cadences. A shadow of theme 2 from the first movement is implied with the first chord (G sharp dominant 7th), its implied cadence (A), and the used deceptive cadence (B flat). This theme is repeated with superimposed, pianissimo divided strings made up of the four avoided cadences of the main theme in retrograde. A four-part fugue of semitone couplets appears, first for the piano alone, then for woodwind quartet with the ‘Fortune, my Foe’ theme appearing as piano accompaniment. The movement closes as it began with the piano’s rocking theme, except that now the second and fourth cadences are perfect, not deceptive, giving a strange slump of weariness to the theme as it sinks down a semitone at these points; it is as if someone has been into a familiar room and changed the position of just one painting.

The third movement, ‘Maccaber Dance’, opens like the first with three unison fortissimo Bs, but this time the strings accompany with a syncopated diminution of this motif, the ostinato triplets becoming a rash of spots over the skin of the entire movement. The piano boldly declaims the exuberant main theme (a combined reworking of themes 1 and 2 from the first movement), while the ostinato triplets in the strings change from B to C to D flat and back to C, ending on B—an elephantine, augmented version of the same movement’s theme 2. The third movement’s second theme is a further metamorphosis of the first movement’s two themes, becoming more manic at each appearance. The ‘Fortune, my Foe’ theme appears first in the piano in a clever combination of all three themes as its opening intervals are distorted into three semitones, and its figuration is the thrice-repeated unison, spread over a devilishly awkward three-octave span. This Elizabethan extract continues to reappear with a menacing domination until the work ends—the three punched chords slashing like a rapier, the semitone theme a raspberry-clustered chord, blown with blackened tongue, and the piano’s final octaves tumbling down in a frenzy to the last unison B.

from notes by Stephen Hough © 1997

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