This week I was delighted to attend a concert to launch British pianist Richard Uttley’s new CD Ghosts and Mirrors. Richard is a passionate advocate of contemporary piano music, and this CD, his third, follows his previous recordings with its focus on contemporary and 20th-century music. In addition to works by Toru Takemitsu and Luciano Berio, the disc includes the first recordings of Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy and Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy which was written especially for Uttley and was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010.
Richard explains the title of his CD as “the works collected here [are] are reflection on something”, and the “ghosts” appear, in part, in memoriam to departed composers, namely Messiaen (Takemitsu/Rain Tree Sketch II and Murail/Cloches d’Adieu, et un Sourire). There are more metaphoric ghosts and reflections here too: Thomas Ades harks back to the Mazurkas of Chopin and Szymanowski in his Op. 27 Mazurkas, while Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy is a paraphrase on themes from Berg’s opera which charts the rise and horrific fall, ending in death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, of its eponymous heroine. In Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy, the work opens with a fragment of an “alberti bass”, an eighteenth-century musical device in which chords are broken or arpeggiated to create continuous sound.
It can be hard to present a programme entirely comprising contemporary music in concerts (witness the BBC’s anxieties about this in its Proms broadcasts this year – more on this issue here) and some performers seek new ways to present contemporary programmes which challenge and excite the eyes as well as the ears. Thus, Richard Uttley, was joined onstage by Nat Urazmetova, a visual artist, who created the artwork for the CD, and who designed and mixed live visuals as Richard played. These were not a simple “accompaniment” to the music, but rather had been designed to reflect not only the mood and characteristics of the pieces performed (a selection from the CD), but also textures, colours, dynamics and articulation. From trembling, pulsing sea anemones to a dizzying, plane’s eye view of London at night, the frenetic rhythm of a weaving machine to an unsettling tour of a ruined Gothic church, these visuals enhanced and informed the music, without detracting it from it. Perhaps the most powerful was the film which accompanied the Lulu Fantasy, suggesting the horrible fate of the protagonist through shuddering black and white images, hinting at sexual depravity and violence.
It was evident throughout the performance that Richard really enjoys the challenges, both musical and technical, of playing this kind of repertoire. His total immersion in and understanding of this music produced a performance that was entirely convincing, and, more importantly, extremely absorbing. A pristine sound, clean articulation and broad dynamic range combined to create one of the most exciting concerts of contemporary music I have attended. I was pleased to find even more to delight and intrigue in the CD, which is also elegantly designed with copious and intelligent liner notes by Richard, with contributions from the composer’s themselves.
‘Ghosts and Mirrors’ is available on the ARC label