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CLASSICAL  January 2009

CLASSICAL January 2009

Subject:

Herr Stephen Hough

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 2 Jan 2009 13:03:54 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (88 lines)

Stephen Hough
Chromo Piano

*  Tsontakis:
        - Man of Sorrows (2005)
        - Sarabesque (2004)
*  Schoenberg: 6 kleine Klavierstucke, op. 19 (1911)
*  Berg: Piano Sonata, op. 1 (1908)
*  Webern: Variations for Piano, op. 27 (1935-36)

Stephen Hough (piano), Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton.
Hyperion CDA67564  Total time: 67:35

Summary for the Busy Executive: Modern Viennese classics and two
others.

Those who think of Schoenberg and his followers as Moloch and his army,
out to destroy the good, the true, and the beautiful, have few allies
among contemporary composers, even the tonal ones.  Schoenberg's real
revolution was not his "method of composing with twelve tones," but in
how composers looked at music.  Pattern manipulation came to the fore
and themes as such stepped into the background.  This didn't mean the
death of emotion in music.  Bach and Beethoven, after all, do much the
same.  So does George Tsontakis, born in Queens, New York, in 1951.
Tsontakis studied with Hugo Weisgall and Roger Sessions, both of whom
emphasized flexibility, craft, and expressiveness in their teaching.
Tsontakis's early music sounds a lot like Sessions, but he has since
moved away from that to something sparer and more melodic.  The classical
tradition and his Greek Orthodox heritage find their way into many of
his newer works.

Man of Sorrows, for piano and orchestra, is the more elaborate of his
scores on this CD.  It's based on a kind of row, but usually with a key
center.  He doesn't try to undermine -- at least, not much -- your sense
of tonal "home." Indeed, in places it sounds a bit like Debussy or like
Duke-Ellington jazz (influenced by Debussy).  From the outset, however,
you grasp his basic materials and his manipulations of them: two whole-tone
scales, a half-step apart, and the Beethoven "Es muss sein" motif.  The
score seems to have a spiritual program behind it, with not only its
overall title but also the names of individual movements: "Ecce homo,"
"Es muss sein -- Labyrinthus," "Lachrymosa (Stabat Mater)," and so on.
I must say that for me the music has little to do with the titles, but
fortunately I can enjoy it for its own sake.  I like best the third
movement, "Lachrymosa," a quiet meditation of long musical lines.  I
think the piece as a whole pleasant, but not earth-shattering.  Some of
it reminds me of a pianist noodling around in an after-hours club.  It
kind of suffers from its placement among exalted company.  I'd say much
the same of the Sarabesque (sarabande + arabesque), although I don't
know what to make of it.  To me, it wanders aimlessly for close to six
minutes.  I used to hear New Age pianists improvise stuff like this when
they were high.

The other three pieces exist on a different plane.  Schoenberg's six
miniatures say more in ten seconds than Tsontakis's entire Sarabesque.
Extremely concentrated, they partake of the same psychological territory
as Prokofiev's Visions fugitives -- little haiku about the transitory,
and the intensity and regret of the moment.

Of the Big Three of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and
Webern), Berg, with few exceptions, has left me cold.  The Piano Sonata
strikes me as emotionally overheated for no good reason.  It reminds me
of a teen-age boy, alone in his room, striking attitudes in front of a
mirror.

Webern's piano variations, a late work, also tends just to go by. 
Repeated listening will reveal how Webern alters his materials, but I
find that in the end, I wind up saying, "So what?" Much of my love for
Webern comes from his sense of instrumental color, and the piano has
pretty much just one color.  However, it doesn't last very long.

Stephen Hough is known for his wide range of repertoire.  He does well
in Man of Sorrows and, surprisingly, in the Berg.  He actually imparts
an adult sensibility to it.  The Schoenberg is quite fine, with Hough
investing great psychological heft into its brief spaces.  The most I
can say for his Webern is that he scrupulously observes the dynamics and
tries for the long line.  Unfortunately, he's up against Mitsuko Uchida
on Philips, who soars in the Schoenberg and turns the Webern into spiritual
pilgrimages.  Hough's Webern still seems to me a bit of a lecture, a
talk about theory rather than about emotional revelation.  I like equally
Hough and Uchida's Berg.  Performers do make a difference.

Steve Schwartz

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