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Track(s) taken from CDA67005

Fantasia 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: 8 minutes 33 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 1939 a young pianist called William Masselos made his debut at New York’s Town Hall playing, amongst other works, Copland’s Piano Variations. When Copland had finished writing his monumental Piano Fantasy in 1957, he admitted in a letter to Benjamin Britten that giving the first performance would be beyond him, and he decided to ask Masselos to play the premiere: ‘After hearing Bill play through the piece one day while he was testing pianos in Steinway’s basement, I really got excited: Masselos was a composer’s dream.’ (Copland since 1943; Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. St Martin’s Press, 1989)

Around a decade earlier Ben Weber had been similarly thrilled with the playing of William Masselos and decided to write him a serious piece for piano which became the Fantasia (Variations), premiered in March 1949 at Carnegie Hall, New York. Weber wrote in his unpublished autobiography:

I write pieces for my lovers […] when I dedicate a piece I don’t do it idly. I never did it with success on that level except with Billy Masselos, though it was not physical […] The Fantasia is a kind of bond between us, and when I wrote it deliberately, note for note, I was really making love to him through the avenues of sound. (How I took 63 years to commit suicide; with Matthew Paris)

(On a personal note I had the privilege of playing this piece for Masselos in the 1980s before he died.)

Ben Weber was born in 1916 in St Louis and was largely self-taught. His music was highly regarded by many composers of the time such as Copland, Carter, Cage and Babbitt, and he worked as a copyist for many, including Virgil Thomson and Artur Schnabel, both of whom became admirers and close friends. He was the first American composer to use the twelve-note technique consistently, and he made the following comments on his music (quoted by Oliver Daniel in an article for Broadcast Music Inc. in 1965):

By and large since 1938 my music has been usually atonal […] but sometimes I have written pieces which have strong functional and tonal impetus, or at least implication. However my use of ‘techniques with twelve-tones’, i.e. serial music, has been consistent over a period of now twenty-two years, and most of what I and some others consider to be my most important work is accomplished within these means.

The work is titled with a certain precision: Fantasia (Variations), the latter word in both brackets and smaller letters. Thus, like the Corigliano, this piece is principally a fantasy—a large form with smaller units creating a framework to hold the piece together. (As it is a piece using the twelve-note technique, it is by default ‘variations’—any twelve-note row can be seen as a ‘theme’ which is varied.) The overall structure of the work is three sections: first, a theme with four variations followed by a five-bar interlude; second, three variations in passacaglia form; finally, a free fantasy section based on earlier material which culminates in a climax surging with emotion. In contrast to the cool objectivity of the Copland work, the Weber revels in the sun of its post-Romantic harmony, and is freckled with tonal implications, in spite of the Second Viennese School ‘umbrella’. In fact there is even a whiff of Brahms’s cigar in the loose folds of the arpeggiated figuration, as well as the more exotic fragrance of Scriabin.

from notes by Stephen Hough © 1998

En 1939, un jeune pianiste du nom de William Masselos fit ses débuts au Town Hall de New York avec, entre autres, les Piano Variations de Copland. À l’achèvement de sa monumentale Piano Fantasy, en 1957, Copland confessa, dans une lettre à Benjamin Britten, qu’en assurer la première serait trop pour lui, et il décida de demander à Masselos d’assumer ce rôle: «Après avoir entendu Bill jouer un jour qu’il testait les pianos dans le sous-sol de Steinway, je fus réellement excité: Masselos était le rêve de tout compositeur.» (Copland since 1943, Aaron Copland et Vivian Perlis. St Martin’s Press, 1989)

Une dizaine d’années auparavant, Ben Weber, similairement électrisé par le jeu de William Masselos, avait décidé de lui écrire une pièce sérieuse pour piano, qui devint la Fantasia (Variations), dont la première se tint en mars 1949, au Carnegie Hall de New York. Weber écrivit dans son autobiographie inédite:

J’écris des pièces pour mes amants […] lorsque je dédie une pièce, je ne le fais pas négligemment. Je ne l’ai jamais fait avec succès, excepté avec Billy Masselos, bien que ce ne fût pas physique […] La Fantasia est une sorte de lien entre nous, et lorsque je l’écrivis sans hâte, note par note, je lui fis véritablement l’amour à travers les avenues du son. (How I took 63 years to commit suicide, avec Matthew Paris)

(J’eus personnellement le privilège de jouer cette pièce pour Masselos, dans les années 1980, avant sa mort.)

Né à Saint-Louis en 1916, Ben Weber fut en grande partie autodidacte. Moult compositeurs de l’époque, tels Copland, Carter, Cage et Babbitt, tinrent sa musique en haute estime; il fut, en outre, le copiste de nombreux compositeurs, dont Virgil Thomson et Artur Schnabel, qui devinrent tous deux des admirateurs et des amis proches. Il fut le premier compositeur américain à utiliser régulièrement la technique dodécaphonique, commentant ainsi sa musique (propos cités par Oliver Daniel dans un article pour Broadcast Music Inc., en 1965):

Dans l’ensemble, depuis 1938, ma musique a généralement été atonale […] mais j’ai parfois écrit des pièces présentant un fort élan, ou au moins un sous-entendu, fonctionnel et tonal. Cependant, mon utilisation des «techniques avec douze notes», i.e. de la musique sérielle, a été régulière depuis maintenant vingt-deux ans, et l’essentiel de ce que moi-même, et d’autres, considérons comme mon travail le plus important est réalisé via ce moyen d’expression.

L’œuvre est intitulée avec une certaine précision: Fantasia (Variations), ce dernier mot étant entre paranthèses et en caractères plus petits. Cette pièce est donc, à l’instar de celle de Corigliano, principalement une fantaisie—une grande forme dotée d’unités moindres créant une trame pour maintenir l’ensemble. (Cette pièce recourant à la technique dodécaphonique, ce sont des «variations» par défaut—toute série de douze notes pouvant être considérée comme un thème qui est varié.) La structure globale de l’œuvre est en trois sections: primo, un thème avec quatre variations, puis un interlude de cinq mesures; secundo, trois variations sises dans une forme passacaille; tertio, une fantaisie libre fondée sur le matériau antérieur, qui culmine en un apogée jaillissant avec émotion. Par contraste avec la froide objectivité de l’œuvre de Copland, cette pièce de Weber se délecte au soleil de son harmonie post-romantique et est teintée de sous-entendus tonaux, en dépit de l’«égide» de la Seconde École viennoise. Plus encore, une bouffée du cigare de Brahms, et la fragrance, plus exotique, de Scriabine, imprègnent même les plis amples de sa figuration arpégée.

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

Other albums featuring this work

The Stephen Hough Piano Collection
HOUGH1Super-budget price sampler
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