TSONTAKIS: Man of Sorrows (2005). Sarabesque (2004). SCHOENBERG: 6 kleine Klavierstücke, op. 19 (1911). BERG: Piano Sonata, op. 1 (1908). WEBERN: Variations for Piano, op. 27 (1935-36).
Stephen Hough (piano), Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton.
Hyperion CDA 67564 (F) (DDD) TT: 67:35

Modern Viennese classics and two others. Those who think of Schoenberg and his followers as Moloch and his army, out to destroy the good, the true, and the beautiful, have few allies among contemporary composers, even the tonal ones. Schoenberg's real revolution was not his "method of composing with twelve tones," but in how composers looked at music. Pattern manipulation came to the fore and themes as such stepped into the background. This didn't mean the death of emotion in music. Bach and Beethoven, after all, do much the same. So does George Tsontakis, born in Queens, New York, in 1951. Tsontakis studied with Hugo Weisgall and Roger Sessions, both of whom emphasized flexibility, craft, and expressiveness in their teaching. Tsontakis's early music sounds a lot like Sessions, but he has since moved away from that to something sparer and more melodic. The classical tradition and his Greek Orthodox heritage find their way into many of his newer works.

Man of Sorrows, for piano and orchestra, is the more elaborate of his scores on this CD. It's based on a kind of row, but usually with a key center. He doesn't try to undermine -- at least, not much -- your sense of tonal "home." Indeed, in places it sounds a bit like Debussy or like Duke-Ellington jazz (influenced by Debussy). From the outset, however, you grasp his basic materials and his manipulations of them: two whole-tone scales, a half-step apart, and the Beethoven "Es muss sein" motif. The score seems to have a spiritual program behind it, with not only its overall title but also the names of individual movements: "Ecce homo," "Es muss sein -- Labyrinthus," "Lachrymosa (Stabat Mater)," and so on. I must say that for me the music has little to do with the titles, but fortunately I can enjoy it for its own sake. I like best the third movement, "Lachrymosa," a quiet meditation of long musical lines. I think the piece as a whole pleasant, but not earth-shattering. Some of it reminds me of a pianist noodling around in an after-hours club. It kind of suffers from its placement among exalted company. I'd say much the same of the Sarabesque (sarabande + arabesque), although I don't know what to make of it. To me, it wanders aimlessly for close to six minutes. I used to hear New Age pianists improvise stuff like this when they were high.

The other three pieces exist on a different plane. Schoenberg's six miniatures say more in ten seconds than Tsontakis's entire Sarabesque. Extremely concentrated, they partake of the same psychological territory as Prokofiev's Visions fugitives -- little haiku about the transitory, and the intensity and regret of the moment.

Of the Big Three of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern), Berg, with few exceptions, has left me cold. The Piano Sonata strikes me as emotionally overheated for no good reason. It reminds me of a teen-age boy, alone in his room, striking attitudes in front of a mirror.

Webern's piano variations, a late work, also tends just to go by. Repeated listening will reveal how Webern alters his materials, but I find that in the end, I wind up saying, "So what?" Much of my love for Webern comes from his sense of instrumental color, and the piano has pretty much just one color. However, it doesn't last very long.

Stephen Hough is known for his wide range of repertoire. He does well in Man of Sorrows and, surprisingly, in the Berg. He actually imparts an adult sensibility to it. The Schoenberg is quite fine, with Hough investing great psychological heft into its brief spaces. The most I can say for his Webern is that he scrupulously observes the dynamics and tries for the long line. Unfortunately, he's up against Mitsuko Uchida on Philips, who soars in the Schoenberg and turns the Webern into spiritual pilgrimages. Hough's Webern still seems to me a bit of a lecture, a talk about theory rather than about emotional revelation. I like equally Hough and Uchida's Berg. Performers do make a difference.

S.G.S. (October 2008)