04 Jan 2024

STEPHEN HOUGH: Piano Concerto (The World of Yesterday)

by Stephen Hough

This 20-minute piano concerto is based on two motives. The first of these opens the work, heard in its simplest form in violins and flutes, all white-notes, not a cloud in the sky. In bar 3 clarinet and harp answer with a germ of the second motive, a chain of rising triads, also in purest C major, which will later become the Waltz. The Prelude slowly begins to blush with richer harmonies and increasing energy, until the piano enters to play an extended cadenza. After a while the energy of its ragged, splashing virtuosity dissipates and we hear the second motive as a slow, disarmingly sweet-toothed waltz – with a hint of Bill Evans perhaps.

This turns out to be a premonition of the real Waltz section as the strings enter playing the 16-bar theme in its full, decadently seductive form. There follow seven variations on this waltz where the pianist is mainly accompanist, providing a plush carpet of decorative commentary. An eighth variation begins with a cranking up of tempo until, back in C major, we hear both themes waltzing together, glistening with glockenspiel. A further acceleration tumbles us into the Tarantella.

Sir Stephen Hough

Now the waltz theme is squashed into staccato chords punctuated by xylophone flashes of the first theme. The energy works itself into a frenzy of agitation, propelling the music to a sudden silence, after which we hear the first theme, back in C major but flaring with fanfares and flourishes. The music increases in emotional intensity until the two themes are heard again, now stretched to a new height of sentimental ardour. A lurch of acceleration returns us hastily to the tarantella and from there, inexorably, to the frenetic, blazing conclusion of the piece.

“the world of yesterday” . . . a subtitle with several meanings. It is borrowed from Stefan Zweig’s eponymous memoir with its celebration of Viennese culture before the First World War: the world as it used to be; nostalgia as both literal and legend. But this title became a tag for me, representing the history of the piano concerto form itself: invented to be a touring piece for composers who were also pianists, a visiting card on the road. From Mozart, its most prolific exponent, to Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, right through to the mid-20th century’s virtuosos, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Bartok, to be a pianist was to write a piano concerto. A world of yesterday indeed.