Hyperion Records

Ghost Variations

'New York Variations' (CDA67005)
New York Variations
Movement 1: Ad libitum – Strictly – Languid – Tempo 1 – Mozart Variations
Track 8 on CDA67005 [12'27] Archive Service
Movement 2: Scherzo 1
Track 9 on CDA67005 [9'49] Archive Service
Movement 3: Scherzo 2
Track 10 on CDA67005 [9'14] Archive Service

Ghost Variations
The epic Ghost Variations (1991) was the next major work to be written after the Fourth Quartet and its title is deliberately ambiguous. If ‘variation’ as a concept has itself been varied in other works, in this piece ‘variation’ as a structure has disappeared entirely. It is more the idea of metamorphosis—material (and perhaps even the listener) changing over the course of the piece. The ‘Ghost’ in the title suggests the world of the spiritual—of memory, of dreams; and a ‘play within a play’ occurs when there is a small set of traditional variations on a Mozart theme (from the third movement of the Piano Concerto in E flat major, K482). Tsontakis admits that when he came across this theme for the first time, out of context, he thought that it was by Beethoven; and the inappropriateness of its stubby, virile treatment in this context is another ‘ghost’—Beethoven as ‘ghost-writer’ for Mozart … a ‘medium’ who distorts the message.

There are two overriding, opposing psychological elements at work in the piece which could be described as obsessiveness versus dissipation, clear-sightedness versus hallucination, firm purpose versus aimlessness; a contrast between moments when everything matters, and moments when nothing matters—one could almost say a Western/Eastern conflict. The search for ‘enlightenment’ happens here either by obsessive repetition—as if trying to solve a problem by going over it again and again; or by an unravelling process, ‘becoming muddled’ or ‘doodling’ as the composer writes in the score.

The work is in three movements and has two harmonic elements which mirror the emotional ones described above—the tritone versus major tonality. Each movement begins with a tritone and ends with a major chord (thus the whole piece does the same, the opening tritone ‘G’ and ‘D flat’ resolving to ‘A flat’ major at the close of the work); and a melodic cell is implied in this tritone to major-third harmonic structure: the falling or rising semitones which occur throughout the piece.

The first movement is in the form of an extended, free fantasy leading up to the ‘Mozart Variations’—a theme plus six brief variations, the last of which is repeated. The fantasy section has three distinct musical ideas; a semi-aleatoric section which opens the work like a ‘spilling of beans’, stopping and starting and gradually intensifying into the second idea, a syncopated triplet fanfare motive. After further intensification, the third idea follows, a ‘stately’ yet jagged motive of broken chords, based mainly on fourths, which is underpinned by a chorale in open octaves. This chorale eventually blossoms and sheds the broken chords to bloom into a romantically lyrical section based largely on the falling semitone cell mentioned above. These three ideas are developed and explored with increasing intensity, landing us without warning in the astonishing rococo world of the Mozart theme. This moment is a shock to say the least, and we are not sure whether we should laugh or not; but as we are caught up in the swift journey of the variations we soon realize that this is no laughing matter. The music now has taken on a vigorous, Beethovenian intensity, the Mozart theme a fragile memory … a ghost; and the movement ends with ‘blazing’ ‘B flat’ major chords hammering out only the rhythm of the theme, the ringing vibrations left hanging in the air like some ‘aural aura’.

There follow two scherzos, each of which begins and develops with extraordinary, sometimes manic intensity, yet ends up breaking down … disintegrating. (Such is the rhythmic excitement of the first scherzo that it literally comes off the rails on the first page, fizzling up the keyboard like a balloon let go before its knot is tied!) The scherzo as a classical movement was generally a lightweight relief after a lengthy slow movement or after a serious first movement—a way to bridge a gap. Only with Beethoven’s later works does the scherzo take on a crucial and pivotal purpose. Tsontakis, with a neo-Beethovenian brio, takes the decorative form of a scherzo—twice—and makes it the cornerstone of his building. Although each of the movements’ pillars crumbles at its close, we are not left with ruins; rather the ‘material’ has given way to the ‘spiritual’.

The first scherzo has many jazz and folk elements, from the finger-snapping syncopations of the opening to the finger-plucking strums of the movement’s close. However, only the ‘skin’ is jazz-inspired; the ‘soul’ is too anxious, too frantic, too ready to collapse, both rhythmically and emotionally. Between these two contrasting sections of the movement is much development, including a further variation on the Mozart theme ‘floating sweetly’ between a blisteringly radiant ‘purge’ of the scherzo’s principal theme and a fumbling duet on the same theme, guitar and cimbalom all out of synchronization. The movement ends with simple, quietly plucked chords in the left hand, oblivious of the right hand’s piercing dart—too high for a human scream—marked in the score ‘hollow, into an abyss’.

There are only two possibilities after the disintegration of this first scherzo: either give up, or get up and begin again. The latter course is taken here with a vengeance, and the second scherzo is even more charged with frenetic energy than its first counterpart. The jazz and folk elements have disappeared, and have been replaced by an asymmetrical tarantella, that symbolic dance of lunacy and delirium. Not only are the triplets of the dance frequently expanded and contracted into fours and twos, but offbeat accents trip up the phrases, leaving us ‘on the edge of our feet’. The semitonal cell which was so important in the first movement reappears at the crisis point of the movement, forming a ‘broad, sweeping’ chorale which tries to stop the frantic flow of the tarantella. This is only a temporary solution, and the opening material of the scherzo returns in full force.

After further development of tarantella, Mozart variations and chorale, a climax is reached when the quiet, plucked chords from the close of the first scherzo return in full force—‘weighty, profound’—forming a ‘ground-bass’ which continues to the end of the piece. The tarantella, its dancing days over, becomes distorted and fragmented over the left-hand chords, until, with an unexpected surge of energy, it re-emerges in Greek folk disguise as ‘wild ricochet’ for a page-length of abandon. It exhausts itself and, above the omnipresent left-hand chords, the Mozart theme appears again, this time at the top of the instrument. It literally ‘runs out of keyboard’ in its ascent, the final variation played on the wood of the piano-frame—the ghost’s first appearance ‘in the flesh’ as it were. All is unreality, and this Masonic knocking on the door leads the piece into a world we are forbidden to enter. We have reached the threshold … but can go no further.

from notes by Stephen Hough © 1998

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