Friday, 22 October 2010

Stephen Hough's new hat - Herbstlieder

Stephen Hough's famous as a pianist, but at the Oxford Lieder Festival he wore a new hat as composer. Previously all I'd heard of Hough's own music was a piece written for the Sacred Made Real exhibition at the National Gallery. Against those phenomenally powerful visual images, it had no chance. So I came expecting to be polite. Instead, I'm most sincerely impressed,.

A coup for the Oxford Lieder Festival! Hough's Herbstlieder is a good addition to the repertoire.  Set to texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, it's a meditation on themes loosely connected with autumn, the passing of time, days drawing in, regret, the end of fruitfulness, and all that implies in life. Herbstlieder is impressionistic, creating an atmosphere as nebulous as autumnal mists.

It's quiet, too, like meditation. Herbstlieder starts with a simple cadence of separate chords fluttering downwards. "Like leaves falling" said Hough in the pre-concert talk. Diminuendi don't necessarily diminish. The chords that link the first two songs mark a subtle progression. Rilke writes of a star seit Jahrtausenden tot, whose light still reaches us from afar.A strange image : ein weisse Stadt an Ende des Strahls in den Himmeln steht. A white city seen in the heavens at the end of a ray of light. Hough sets these words so the crescendo rises right to the top, to the limits of the register. Whatever the image might mean, the connection is made between the lone individual on earth and distant galaxies beyond.

In Trănenkrūglein, images of jugs being filled and emptied. Circular, cascading piano part,  but at the conclusion, the vocal line pauses, like the last drops dripping from a jug. Machen ...mich....leer. (make me empty), Bestūrz mich, Musik is its companion piece. Big, bold phrasing, the piano part almost staccato. In the midst of the turmoil an unadorned line Mein Herz: Da!, emphasis on the da.The voice part swells passionately, evoking the Posaune des Engels, (the Final Judgement)  Filled to overflowing, the music subsides.

The final song, Herbst, reverts to hushed, autumnal contemplation. Indeed, much of it is parlando. A pianist composer writing his own instrument out of the picture? Yet in some ways, that's the spirit of Rilke's poem. Und in der Năchten făllt die schwere Erde.(and in the end Earth itself will fall) like the distant stars. Individual striving is no big deal in the eternal scheme of things. Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses Fallen, unendlich sanft in seinen Hănden fast. (And yet there is one who holds these fallen gently, eternally in his hands)  Eichendorff or Rūckert might have been specific about the "one", but with Rilke we can imagine a more abstract communion with the cosmos. 

Hough spoke about writing these songs three years ago while he was in a hotel in Seoul, Korea. Even in this maniacally busy world of 24/7 communication, we're often isolated. But it's not necessarily a bad thing if we can switch off the mental muzak around us and think beyond ourselves. Far from being noisy and dissonant a great deal of modern music is like this - pure, abstract, contemplative. There are no jolly jingles in Herbstlieder to worm their way into your mind and distract. Yet that's precisely why it's such a good piece. Wolfgang Rihm, darling of modern German music, said of his hero, Wilhelm Killmayer, "His scores are all white!"  Think of Webern's aphorisms, Kurtág's tiny fragments, antidotes to the frantic turmoil around us. Stephen Hough's nowhere near that league, but he's a lot closer to the real avant garde than he realizes.

Good performance by Alisdair Hogarth and Jacques Imbrailo, who seems to intuit the spirituality of these songs. We will get to hear them again, as there may be a recording in the offing. In the meantime, track down the publisher. See Stephen Hough's site for more.

This is the sort of adventurous music Oxford Lieder Festival is famous for. Also premiered in this recital was a new piece by Ned Rorem, a setting of Shakespeare Sonnet 147, (My love  is as a fever longing still) jointly commissioned by the Oxford Lieder Festival and Prince Consort. They're relatively impecunious but what they have, they invest in long-term benefits for art song. It's an excellent piece, wavy cadences, baritone and tenor artfully blended, the piano tolling like a bell at the culmination.

The Prince Consort also sang songs from Schumann Spanisches Liederspiel and Spanische Liebeslieder. Read about their concert of Rorem's Evidence of Things Not Seen at rthe Oxford Lieder Festival in 2009.

Please read my other posts on Oxford Lieder, Prince Consort and Jacques Imbrailo. (Use search facility or labels below)  Photo credit : Grant Hiroshima

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