Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Writings

Stephen Hough's English Piano Album

THE EARLIEST-KNOWN MUSIC written for a keyboard instrument is an English fragment of two leaves known as the Robertsbridge Codex ( 1325); the Elizabethan virginalists John Bull, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons wrote (he first important corpus of keyboard music; and the Englishman John Broadwood was the inventor of the modern piano, patenting its 'soul' - the damper pedal - in 1783. But otherwise, England's influence and achievement in pianistic matters has been distinctly patchy. Isolated figures appear here and there - Sterndale Bennett and Pinto come to mind - but after the 1500s nothing resembling a significant body of keyboard works was written until the cusp of the twentieth century. This is not dissimilar to the French experience; and although Britain had no Saint-Saens, nor was it later to produce piano music of the calibre of Debussy, Ravel or Faure there are nevertheless many wonderful pieces, some with a genuinely inspired and original voice.

Initial influences on young British musical talent at the end of the nineteenth century came from the expected sources of Brahms and Wagner; but the flower of Impressionism which had sprouted up across the Channel was quickly and enthusiastically imported and grafted on to prewar British culture. This early twentieth-century coupling of French scent and German taste gave birth to a new, idiomatic Albion species - a distinctive style which can truly be said to constitute a 'school'.

The present recital makes no attempt to be a balanced survey of English piano music. There are numerous composers left out - significantly John Ireland, Arnold Bax and Cyril Scott, not to mention countless later composers. The collection here is intended to be a personal 'album' through which the curious listener can browse at leisure, pausing oil this page, passing by the other.

  • Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971)
  • Bagatelles (1938)
  • Allegro
  • Allegretto
  • Presto non assai
  • Lento

Alan Rawsthorne was an original and powerful voice in British Music in the mid-twentieth century. The Bagatelles, four short pieces ingeniously based on a ten-note theme were written in 1938 for my teacher Gordon Green. I studied them with him as a teenager and I remember his eyes filling with tears on one occasion after hearing the last piece, its restrained emotion reminding him of his affectionate friendship with the composer and the latter's recent death.

  • Stephen Reynolds (b1947)
  • Two Poems in Homage to Delius
  • Rustic Idyll
  • Serenade and Dance of Spring
  • Two Poems in Homage to Faure
  • Chanson d'Automne
  • Impromptu: Le Printemps

Stephen Reynolds has been heard as pianist and composer in concerts and broadcasts across Europe and the United States. He is currently on the faculty of his alma mater, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where both Rawsthorne and myself studied. The two sets of pieces on this record were originally written in the 1980s as a diversion from the more serious and experimental music he was writing at the time. He talks of wanting to invade and absorb the sound-world of two of his favourite composers, and to use their musical language to create works of his own. The Delius-inspired pieces are especially welcome since that composer wrote very little for the piano. In both of the sets a longer, more substantial piece is prefaced by a shorter one in a related key.

  • Stephen Hough (b1961)
  • Valse Enigmatique No 1
  • Valse Enigmatique No 2

These two trifles are 'enigmatic' in their use of musical notes representing the letters of words in this case, two people's names. In addition, the first Valse contains quotes from Mendelssohn and Grieg; and a 'chinoiserie' is present and intended in the second. My own initials ('E flat' and 'B' in German nomenclature) are woven throughout both pieces ... but more than that I'm not prepared to divulge!

  • Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
  • In Smyrna

Edward Elgar wrote very little for the piano, and what exists has the feeling of someone improvising, playing around with ideas which would come fully to life when later refined and orchestrated. In Smyrna was inspired by a Mediterranean cruise the composer had taken in 1905. It is instantly recognizable as Elgar and thus is a marvellous example of how even a fragment from a great composer can contain his genetic code.

  • Granville Bantock (1868-1946)
  • Song to the Seals (arr. Hough)

Granville Bantock was a conductor and educator who wrote a sizable quantity of music in various forms, much of it showing his fascination for things Eastern and Celtic. I discovered this haunting song through the tenor Robert White with whom I have played through masses of vocal repertoire after delicious bowls of pasta at his New York apartment. The printed score has the following words of explanation: 'The refrain of this song was actually used recently on an Hebridean island by a singer who thereby attracted a quantity of seals to gather round and listen intently to the singing'.

  • York Bowen (1884-1961)
  • Reverie d'Amour Op 20 No 2
  • Serious Dance Op 51 No 2
  • The Way to Polden (an ambling tune) Op 76

These three pieces show three contrasting faces of the composer: the Reverie d'Amour is an early piece whose blushingly lush lyricism hovers delightfully close to decadence; the Serious Dance (the second of three such pieces) is a wistful waltz with teasing harmonic side-steps - a Bowen speciality; and The Way to Polden is a later piece where the harmonies are more piquant and the emotion more 'inside the sleeve'. Chilton Polden is a small village in Somerset and is probably the reference here. (Curiously, 'Polden' is also the name of a poem by Tyutchev which was set to music by Nicolai Medtner, a contemporary of Bowen's who lived only a few miles away from him in Golders Green.)

  • Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
  • The Dew Fairy
  • Heart's Ease

Frank Bridge, a committed pacifist, was profoundly affected by World War 1, and as a result his earlier, pastoral style changed into a more serious, thorny and strikingly personal language. The two miniatures on this recording are from the same post-war years as the ambitious, darkly passionate piano sonata, but they appear to be a throwback to his earlier style. However, their very fragility seems to me to separate them from mere salon pieces, as if they call to mind a lost world of innocence and tranquility. Heart's Ease also exists in an arrangement by the composer for violin and piano.

  • Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)
  • Six Studies (Study-Variations) Op 56

Kenneth Leighton had a distinguished life as a composer, pianist and, latterly, as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. The producer of this CD, Andrew Keener, was one of his students. He wrote his Six Study- Variations in 1969 and they are an important and inexplicably neglected example of English piano music at its best. The rhythmic inventiveness - moving from the pointillism of the second and fourth studies to the snappy, jazz-like syncopations of the ferociously virtuosic final one - is always perfectly judged and paced, and the harmonic tension never strains nor slacks. At the heart of the work is the densely chromatic third study in which slow, repeated notes collide and rise inexorably in thickening clusters to a fist-shaking climax of defiant intensity.

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Stephen Hough