Stephen Hough: Sonata for Piano (broken branches)

My recording

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 Janáček’s 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!

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.