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Track(s) taken from CDA67005

Piano Variations


Stephen Hough (piano)
Recording details: September 1997
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: April 1998
Total duration: 10 minutes 53 seconds


'Hough's playing is glorious' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Scintillating performances and vivid sonics from Hyperion. Even the notes, by Hough himself, are superlative' (American Record Guide)

‘impressive virtuosity, as musically purposeful as it’s exciting … Hough’s brilliantly exact judgement of sonority in Copland’s Piano Variations – chiselled, rather than flinty  … makes this the best performance I’ve heard’ (Classic FM Magazine)

'Hough is supremely and charismatically on top of it all … An iron fist in a glove of softest velvet … He possesses a mesmerising range of colours, knows how to be intellectual without being cerebral, and has the knack of making everything sound spontaneous … Hough has notched up some fine things hitherto. This is probably one of the finest’ (Classic CD)

'This disc is a remarkable combination of artistic vision, stunning performance technique, and curatorial intelligence. Stephen Hough seems to have it all—blazing technique, real artistic vision, an adventurous curiosity, and a deft style as an annotator. A great piano album and a loving testament to the strength of a strain of American music that is expressive and humanistic while remaining open to the challenges of its time' (Fanfare, USA)

‘his playing is unerringly musical in its intentions … This is a disc of the highest musical and interpretative quality whose appeal lies as much in the quality of the pianism as in the fascinating repertoire’ (Hi-Fi News)

'Everything about this production (including recorded sound of almost palpable realism) deserves the highest praise' (International Piano)

‘Mr. Hough’s choices, which he plays with élan, provide a radically concentrated glimpse at this nation’s piano music’ (Wall Street Journal)

‘England’s most imaginative pianist pays tribute to America’s finest solo piano music’ (Time Magazine)

‘a superb survey’ (San Francisco Examiner)

'Startling virtuosity and probing musicality. I have never heard Copland's Variations played with such variety of tone and pinpoint articulation, nor the Corigliano rendered with such plasticity of tempo and mood' (Piano & Keyboard)

‘brilliant performances’ (The New Yorker, USA)

‘[Hough] applies his formidable technique and fine interpretive sense to nearly overpowering effect … [Hough] renders these movements sonic collages, contrasting bold colors with subtle hues worthy of the French Impressionists’ (The New York Times)
In September 1929 Aaron Copland returned to New York having spent a summer in Paris. On New Year’s Day 1930 he moved into a small rented house in Bedford, New York, as he was ‘anxious to work on a piano piece that had been in [his] mind for some time’. In May of the same year he wrote to a friend: ‘I am totally absorbed with the new piano piece and pleased with my progress … for the moment it is called “theme and variations”. It’s a new form for me and lends itself beautifully to my particular kind of development from a single germ.’ Commenting on the genesis of the piece, Copland wrote:

From the start, my first major piano piece, the Piano Variations, had a ‘rightness’ […] It was not composed in the consecutive order of its finished state. I am told that this is at odds with what I have written about the piece—that each variation is meant to develop organically from the previous one and all contribute to a carefully constructed whole. While this is so, it is also true that I worked on the variations individually, not knowing exactly where or how they would eventually fit together. I cannot explain this contradiction. One fine day when the time was right, the order of the variations fell into place. (Copland Vol. 1: 1900 through 1942; Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. Faber & Faber, London 1984)

It was that summer at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, when Copland finally distilled his sixty-two pages of sketches into a concentrated, seventeen-page masterpiece which he eventually entitled Piano Variations. The title did not immediately fall into place either: other thoughts had been, Melodic Variations, Thematic Variations, Fantasie on an Original Theme, Chaconne, Declamations on a Serious Theme and so on. The chosen title not only enabled the composer to orchestrate the piece in 1957 and neatly call it Orchestral Variations, but its abstract flavour, its ‘modern’ sound, suited the mood of the music perfectly.

The first performance of the piece took place in a League of Composers concert in January 1931 with the composer as soloist. Copland had wanted Walter Gieseking to play it, but the latter declined in a candid letter from Berlin:

This composition is very interesting and most original, but I do not know an audience which would accept such crude dissonances without protesting […] a work of such severity of style is not possible among the normal type of concert-goers.

It is an intriguing thought that within a few years political forces in that same city would have prevented Gieseking from including the piece on his concert programmes, not just because of the racy originality of its harmonic language, but because of the racial origins of its composer.

The piece is constructed as a theme, twenty variations, and a coda, and Copland admits the influence of Schoenberg’s serialism in the use of a four-note cell on which the entire piece is built. He also cites as an influence the frugal socio-economic conditions of the time (it was begun only a couple of months after the Wall Street Crash). However, the more audible influences are Stravinsky and jazz, both of which he had discovered whilst studying in Paris in the early 1920s. The short theme is ostensibly in C sharp minor/E major (and reminiscent of the subject of Bach’s C sharp minor Fugue from Book 1 of the Well-tempered Clavier); but the B sharp—the note that would lead us to the tonic—has been enharmonically distorted to C natural, a foreign body to either key. This theme appears in the course of the work upside down, inside out, backwards, like a cube held up to the light from every possible angle—its ‘C’ natural a bump on its side preventing the music from settling into a comfortable place or pulse.

The opening statement of the theme is displaced over two octaves and punctuated by chordal stabs—punches leaving the sting of a harmonic hanging in the air. Variation 1 is the only time we hear the theme in its pure form, in the right hand, yet here the left hand tags along a bar behind like a shadow of discord. In the second variation the left hand has caught up with the right but, although they walk arm in arm, the left hand swivels the four-note cell around, replacing notes one and two with notes three and four—sharp elbows of dissonance. And so on … there is not room in this context to analyse each variation. Suffice to say that there is not a note in the piece which is not directly related to the thematic cell; it is VARIATIONS in capital letters.

from notes by Stephen Hough © 1998

En septembre 1929, Aaron Copland rentra à New York, après un été passé à Paris. Le jour de l’an 1930, il déménagea dans une petite maison louée à Bedford, New York, car il était «désireux de travailler sur une pièce pour piano, qui était dans [son] esprit depuis quelque temps». En mai de la même année, il écrivit à un ami: «Je suis totalement absorbé par ma nouvelle pièce pour piano et ravi de mes progrès … Pour le moment, elle s’appelle ‘thème et variations’. C’est une forme nouvelle pour moi, qui se préte magnifiquement à mon type particulier de développement à partir d’un seul germe». Copland commenta ainsi la genèse de cette pièce:

Dès le début, ma première pièce majeure pour piano, les Piano Variations, posséda une «justesse» […] Elle ne fut pas composée dans l’ordre de sa version finale. On me dit que c’est en contradiction avec ce que j’ai écrit—que chaque variation est censée se développer organiquement à partir de la précédente et que toutes contribuent à un ensemble minutieusement construit. Si tel est bien le cas, il est également vrai que j’ai travaillé les variations individuellement, en ne sachant pas exactement où et comment elles se combineraient finalement. Je ne peux expliquer cette contradiction. Un beau jour, au bon moment, l’ordre des variations fut en place. (Copland Vol.1: 1900 through 1942, Aaron Copland et Vivian Perlis. Faber & Faber, Londres, 1984)

Cet été-là, à Yaddo—la colonie d’artistes de Saratoga Springs—, Copland distilla ses soixante-deux pages d’esquisses en un concentré magistral de dix-sept pages, qu’il intitula en fin de compte Piano Variations. Ce titre ne s’imposa d’ailleurs pas immédiatement, Copland ayant aussi envisagé Melodic Variations, Thematic Variations, Fantasie on an Original Theme, Chaconne, Declamations on a Serious Theme, etc. Mais le titre finalement choisi lui permit d’orchestrer la pièce en 1957 et de la baptiser adroitement Orchestral Variations; de surcroît, la saveur abstraite, la sonorité moderne de ce titre convenaient parfaitement à l’atmopshère de la musique.

La première exécution de l’œuvre se déroula en janvier 1951, lors d’un concert de la League of Composers, avec le compositeur comme soliste. Copland avait souhaité que Walter Gieseking la jouât, mais ce dernier avait décliné son offre dans une lettre candide expédiée de Berlin:

Cette composition est très intéressante et des plus originales, mais je ne sais aucun public capable d’accepter pareilles dissonances crues sans protester […] une œuvre d’une telle sévérité de style n’est pas possible chez les auditeurs de concert habituels. (ibid.)

Il est curieux de songer que, quelques années plus tard, les forces politiques de cette même ville auraient empêché Gieseking d’inclure cette œuvre dans ses programmes de concert non pour la seule originalité osée de son langage harmonique, mais à cause des origines raciales de son auteur.

La pièce est construite comme un thème, avec vingt variations et une coda, et Copland reconnaît avoir subi l’influence du sérialisme de Schoenberg dans l’usage d’une cellule de quatre notes, sur laquelle la pièce est bâtie. Il allègue également le poids des conditions socio-économiques frugales de l’époque (le morceau fut entrepris deux mois seulement après le krach de Wall Street). Cependant, les influences les plus audibles sont celles de Stravinski et du jazz, que le compositeur avait découverts lors de ses études à Paris, au début des années 1920. Le bref thème est ostensiblement en ut dièse mineur/mi majeur (et rappelle le sujet de la Fugue en ut dièse mineur extraite du Livre I du Clavier bien tempéré de Bach); mais le si dièse—la note qui nous conduirait à la tonique—a été enharmoniquement distordu jusqu’à l’ut naturel, corps étranger à chacune des tonalités. Au cours de l’œuvre, le thème apparaît sens dessus dessous, à l’envers, tel un cube tenu à la lumière par chaque angle possible—l’ut naturel étant comme une bosse sur sa face, qui empêche la musique de s’installer dans un endroit ou un rythme confortables.

L’énonciation initiale du thème est déplacée sur deux octaves et ponctuée d’élancements en accords—des coups laissant un dard harmonique en suspens. La première variation est la seule à nous proposer le thème dans sa forme pure, à la main droite, cependant que la main gauche suit une mesure derrière, pareille à une ombre de dissonance. Dans la deuxième variation, la main gauche a rattrapé la droite mais, quoique toutes deux aillent bras dessus bras dessous, la gauche fait pivoter la cellule de quatre notes, remplaçant les notes un et deux par les notes trois et quatre—de vifs coups de dissonance. Et caetera … car le présent contexte ne nous laisse pas assez de place pour analyser chaque variation. Il suffit de dire qu’il n’est aucune note de cette œuvre qui ne soit reliée directement à la cellule thématique; ce sont des VARIATIONS en lettres majuscules.

extrait des notes rédigées par Stephen Hough © 1998
Français: Hypérion

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