Edvard Grieg composed only one cello sonata. He wrote it for his brother. Felix Mendelssohn's brother also played cello; however, his Sonata No 2 in D major was dedicated to a Russian Count. Stephen Hough's Sonata for Cello and Piano left hand was composed at the request of his friend, Steven Isserlis, who performs it with Hough on this new recording. "In a way, they're three sonatas by composer pianists," Hough says. "Grieg was a very fine pianist—he made a few recordings at the end of his life. And, Mendelssohn certainly was a great pianist and I earn my living playing the piano, too. So there are three of us who do both."
And therein lies the idea behind Stephen Hough's most recent recording, which features all three of these cello sonatas.
You might be wondering why a world-class pianist like Stephen Hough would agree to compose a chamber piece for cello. "My sonata came as a commission from Steven for cello and left hand because Steven and I had a friend who lost the use of his right hand," Hough explains. "So, Steven wanted a sonata they could play together. And I thought that was a lovely thing to do.
"And it was an interesting idea because often with repertoire for cello and piano, there's an issue of balance problems, if the piano is playing full tilt, it tends to drown the cello. With just one hand, I suppose the chance of drowning the cello is less.
"And I start with both instruments playing with left hand alone because cello is playing pizzicato the open A string. I toyed with the idea of the pianist actually reaching into the piano and plucking a string, but it sounded better playing the note as if it's a pizzicato. So this whole idea of two instruments combining, playing in the same register, is really what's behind this sonata.
"And I think on the very first page where my pizzicato and the cellist's pizzicato weave together, it's actually rather hard always to tell which instrument is playing. And that kind of confusion is one of the kinds of things that I wanted to set this whole sonata up with."
Dark textures loom in Stephen Hough's Sonata for Cello and Piano left hand. Hough says the sonata's subtitle, Les adieux, reflects the melancholy mood of this work, which conjures up the spirit of Beethoven, and the Bohemian Jan Dusek, who was also a pianist and composer in the late 18th century. "There are three distinct sections," Hough explains. "The first section is a set of variations, really, and it's quite—well, I'd say it's very Western. It's full of activity and analysis and intellectual concepts.
"The second section I think of as Eastern in a sort of Buddhist kind of way where you let go of those concepts and it sort of drifts, in a way. And the two instruments weave together as if it's a boat—on a lake, just floating past—and it's in a constantly changing time signature. I hope it sounds a little bit like a sort of legend from long ago … beyond time, in a way.
"And then the final section, after the opening material comes again in a ferocious cadenza with pizzicato for the cello, it sinks down to a bottom D. And then the piano begins this sort of lapping chorale-type harmonic figuration that the cello then joins on a very high melody. It's peaceful, but it's certainly not resolved. I don't think you feel that these issues have finished.
"And indeed, at the very end, it brings back that first-section material and where the piece began with an open A string, the top string of the cello, it ends with an open C string, the bottom string."
Remember how Stephen Hough originally composed this sonata for a friend who was unable to play with his right hand? As it turns out, that friend regained the use of his right hand, so he never learned this piece. Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough, however, decided to go premiere this sonata together at the Kronberg Academy Festival in Germany shortly after it was composed.