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 Post subject: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Thu Dec 06, 2012 8:54 pm 
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Stephen Hough: Sonata for Piano (broken branches)


Prelude (Autumn) - desolato 1:42 – fragile 2:46 - inquieto 3:34 - piangendo 4:18 – immenso 4:53 – sentimento 6:10 – malancolico 6:49 – passionato 8:19 – freddo 10:11 – volando 10:52 – ritmico 11:14 – non credo 11:37 – morendo 13:18 – crux fidelis 14:04 – Postlude (Spring) 15:18

British pianist and composer Stephen Hough’s piano sonata broken branches from 2010 consists of sixteen small subtly related pieces, in roughly as many minutes. In the foreword Hough writes about ”fragments of fragility”, a tribute to Janáčeks ”On an overgrown path”, and a ”spiritual dimension”. But I think there is more to it than that. I think there is a story about a mind awakening, developing, and facing its destiny.

The story is flanked by a prelude and a postlude. Prelude (Autumn) is an announcement of what is to come, setting the quite gloomy initial mood with a G sharp minor ostinato and introducing some recurring elements, the most important being the rhythmic breaks by frequent fermatas, and the ghosts, almost inaudible melody fragments that live their own life, as shadows or echoes. The story proper begins with the desolato, a very unexciting piece of not wanting to leave the bed in the morning, or take part in any activity whatsoever. In fragile we have our feet on the ground and ideas are starting to form but they are very short-lived. The inquieto contains some disturbing flurries, creating insecurity and interruptions but certainly staying short of fear, leading to the piangendo, the first unbroken piece, a sentimental and mournful remembrance.

New energy levels are injected with the immenso, where we see a colossal moving machine or animal that can be quite dangerous if it comes too close, but luckily it lumbers away. In a reprieve we briefly enjoy the impressionistic sentimento, the most pleasant and comfortable of all branches, before taking on the two central pieces. The malancolico (the title stumps me, I find nothing of melancholy here) is a relentless run exploring most of the keyboard, performed twice. It surrounds an inner sanctum with a haunting slow melody in a low register, where ghosts echo it in the extreme treble, in a different key and twice the speed. The following passionato is declamatory in style and the most broken of all branches, and the only one without an explicit metronome speed mark. We hear a strong argument put forth repeatedly, but it seems to evoke more sadness than conviction. In the freddo we withdraw to the realm of the ghosts, a world of murmurs and whispers.

We are now propelled into the climactic resolution. In the realisation that this meandering will lead nowhere we try an extremely strict regime. The volando has hands flying all over the keyboard in an uninterrupted sequence of arpeggios. The ritmico duplicates this harmonic progression exactly, but with more compact chords and jagged rhythms. Finally the non credo reveals a grappling with existential questions. The themes are based on ascending whole note scales and descending chromatic scales. Initially joyful and boasting they gradually acquire more and more energy but fail to develop, leading to panic. As we attempt to accelerate out of our misery the music just breaks down. In the ugliest sequence I ever played the ghosts come alive and escape off the keyboard.

A recovery now appears totally improbable, as the morendo with a sequence of chromatically descending chords depicts a corpse. The salvation comes out of the blue (but perhaps salvation always does) in the 6th century hymn crux fidelis. The latin text is written in the music as if it should be sung, though it goes far beyond comfortable vocal registers. A rough translation according to ChoralWiki:

Faithful cross, above all other,
One and only noble tree:
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be.
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
Sweetest weight is hung on thee!
Amen


Even those who are not devout catholics may appreciate the serene beauty and calm confidence of this conclusion. A broken branch has been mended.

The Postlude (Spring) copies the prelude exactly, but in the more cheerful G major. Hough writes ”Branches begin their lives anew in the Spring, and nothing is so broken that it cannot be healed.” The very final notes in the extreme treble are dissonant, but by the mechanics of the piano only the G major chord lingers at the end.


Hough - Sonata for piano "Broken Branches"


Last edited by troglodyte on Sun Dec 09, 2012 10:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Fri Dec 07, 2012 3:24 am 
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Wow, I LOVE this!! It's fascinating music; Stephen Hough is amazing! He and Hamelin have that same "Superman" ability of not only playing piano very well, but they each compose interesting music too. And I think you played it very well too! Really, I just loved everything about this!!!

I can't put it up onto the site because I'm out of time right now. But I wonder....will we have any problems with copyright issues, etc...? We may need to get Hough's permission. I know we have done that in the past when it came to a living composer.

Is the information you included your words, or Hough's?

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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Fri Dec 07, 2012 8:05 pm 
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Thanks! I too love this music.

For sure Hough has copyright on his work. This is no different from any other composition where the composer is alive or died less than 70 years ago. This doesn't mean we can't put it up. Of course, were Hough to protest we should immediately take it out. I wouldn't mind asking him but he is probably extremely busy and anyway I wouldn't know how to contact him.

The description is all mine.

Hough has published a CD with this sonata. I am sure it is spectacularly good. I haven't listened to it because I wanted to form my own interpretation from the written music.


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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Fri Dec 07, 2012 9:54 pm 
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I wrote this on the "Pianists" forum last June after I had seen Hough play in concert in Chicago.

**************************************

"In case anyone else is interested, this was his program: Beethoven - Sonata in C-sharp Minor, (Moonlight), Hough - Sonata for Piano (broken branches), Scriabin - Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp Major, Op. 53, Liszt - Sonata in B Minor

It’s been a while since I have watched/listened to anyone play the Moonlight – the last movement is certainly fun to watch! And he did a bang-up job on it too!

Next up was his own composition, "Broken Branches". A very interesting set; I liked the sound of it – some real neat harmonies and such. I found it a little ironic that this was the only time in which he read from the score on the piano. He wrote the music, so you’d think he’d remember what he wrote. Perhaps it is still so new that it hasn’t had time to fully sink into his memory yet..."

*****************************************

What do you think of that? Funny, isn't it?

Anyway, okay I will put this up...maybe tonight, if not then sometime on the weekend. Would you like me to include your text?

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my videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/monicapiano
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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2012 9:08 am 
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Hello Joachim,
It was a great pleasure for me to listen this recording. Actually you made a great job, both with the music and with the presentation. I think all this material deserves to be uploaded. I did not know this composer, and I found this sonata very nice; hence it is close to my ideal in terms of improvisation: free shape, but a succession of moments with distinct atmospheres, rythms, and ways of using the piano. Actually it sounds very much as a dreamy improvisation, although, as reported by Monica, the composer did play this piece watching carefully at the score unlike the rest of the recital !
Thank you for letting us discovering this music, and for your efforts to introduce it. That is the kind of post which makes the greatest value of PS, I think...

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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2012 11:47 am 
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Thanks Francois for the kind words, they are much appreciated!

I heard Hough play in Stockholm this spring, exactly the same programme as Monica describes. I was also surprised that he used the sheet music for his own work whereas Beethoven, Scriabin and Liszt were all memorized. I later read that he put the sheet music on stand just to avoid giving the impression that this is an improvisation. (Perhaps it is also a sales pitch for the music - if so it worked on me!) I was greatly impressed by the whole programme except the first movement of the moonlight which he performed unusually fast and almost distractedly. He more than made up for it in the third movement. Scriabin and Liszt were fantastic. I had a really good seat-on the first row, about five meters from him.

Yes please put up my description of the piece (make sure it is clear that this is not Hough's interpretation).

Joachim


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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2012 11:59 am 
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Interesting music; difficult to know what I make of it on a first impression. It seems to have a slightly schizoid voice, crossing between differing musical vocabularies, sometimes apparently even mid-phrase. I like your playing very much. Incidentally I assume malancolico is a typo and it should be malinconico? I've definitely seen that direction before, but can't place it offhand.


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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2012 4:03 pm 
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Intriguing, disturbing, thought-provoking and elusive music. Indeed it seems written with Janacek's miniatures in mind. I'm not sure if and how much I like this music but it certainly has its moments (predictably, I liked the old hymn the best). Your playing is of the highest order. IIRC last time I had some reservations, but not now. I appreciate you not wanting to listening to Hough's own recording before forming your own conception of the music.
It is to Hough's credit that he composes purely musically, and does not resort to the elegant pyrotechnics he is renowned for. That must take courage, to
stand naked before an audience as it were.

I would not worry about copyright. Every composer would/should be delighted to have their work played by good amateurs. If they object it's early enough to withdraw it, but I'm sure Hough would not be so snotty as to forbid this excellent recording. I never asked Hamelin for permission to record his pieces either (unlikely that he would have responded anyway).

Great program notes, thanks for that. All in all a most welcome and valuable addition to PS.

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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2012 5:38 pm 
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Excellent performance, which shows much sympathy with the music (but that goes without showing). Already from the first few bars the hanging dissonances, as well as the pauses, effectively give a very frigid unsettling air. As mentioned above, the music seems to cross various styles, from the sweetly sentimental fragile to the fierce and frightening ritmico, but you handle them all appropriately. I particularly liked the fredo, where you give the notes in the high register much shape and the non credo, where you play each note with dramatically different articulation, something I've seen in scores but never got the chance to hear in practice. I find the lead in from the morendo to the hymn a bit underwhelming and 'unwon' however, and your interpretation of the hymn (respectful and confined in dynamic range) a bit lightweight compared to the gravity which you lend to the previous pieces, such that it does not contrast with the postlude very well. Perhaps you could shape the hymn (especially the chords at the end) slightly more dramatically, though that could just be my taste.

It's really really cool to hear amateur performances of contemporary classical pieces. Thanks a lot for the recording of this challenging work (both to listen to and to play!), and for releasing it to the public at large as well.


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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2012 11:18 pm 
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Many thanks for the praise, it means very much to me.

Malinconico according to wiktionary means just melancholic. I have a nagging feeling there is something I miss because that part doesn't seem to be melancholic at all.

It is interesting that crux fidelis is what Chris likes best and Affinity least. The lack of drama certainly is intentional and faithful to the score, where the dynamics only range between p and pp, and the crescendo in the first three chords is marked poch., a term I didn't know but some googling revealed to mean Pochettino, ie "very little" (in studying this work I learned quite a few terms new to me). On the other hand the tempo marking is "Adagio estatico". I am going for an introvert kind of ecstasy here. The voice leading is unorthodox, moving freely between four, five and six voices, and with several instances of parallel fifths, as if Hough only intends an idea of a chorale without observing traditional forms. Some chords are so large that I have to flatten my hands to the extreme, making proper voicing very difficult.

The score is overall very intriguing. For example the final outburst of the non credo is marked "not synchronized", meaning that the rapid left hand ostinato should not be synchronized with the right hand. It is sometimes hard to read - you have to really look at and think about each note - and makes high demands on concentration but it is not overly technically difficult except possibly the volando. If you are interested I purchased it at http://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/sm/7319713

Joachim


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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sun Dec 09, 2012 4:32 pm 
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Hi admins,
Something's wrong with the link in the post - when I click on it I get larrard's recording of that Bach for piano and bass. Perhaps this is just a temporary phenomenon caused by the action of "putting it on the site"??
Just a head's up - I'll listen to it after it's up.

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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sun Dec 09, 2012 5:17 pm 
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troglodyte wrote:
It is interesting that crux fidelis is what Chris likes best and Affinity least.

Have to admit I do have a thing about these old melodies. I guess it comes from playing Bach's organ chorales which use hymns going back many centuries.
In this predominantly gloomy cycle, the hymn and following major-key recapitulation provide a timely and welcome ray of light.

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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sun Dec 09, 2012 10:19 pm 
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Thanks Stu for spotting this - I can't do anything about it and must hope for the best. I'll just edit my post to remove the wrong link.


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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Sun Dec 09, 2012 11:08 pm 
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No panic, I corrected the wrong link. It's on the site allright. I presume Monica will update the site later.

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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Wed Mar 13, 2013 6:40 pm 
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Had a listen to this last night, wonderful recording. Some of it is hard for me to "get" but it is interesting music, both the harmonic language and pianistic element aspect. This is the only piece I've heard of Hough, and it leaves a good impression. Someday I'd like to see Hough in Concert.

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 Post subject: Re: Stephen Hough: broken branches
PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 11:56 pm 
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A belated thanks to Riley! And I played with making a video by adding some artwork, here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWfB0fL6fKg


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