CD review: ‘Etude’ by Clare Hammond, piano

Pianist Clare Hammond (photo Julie Kim)

The piano study or ‘Étude’ has long engaged and challenged pianists, and the practice of writing etudes to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano etudes has continued into the modern area with composers such as Ligeti, Cage and Kapustin.

On her new disc for BIS, British pianist Clare Hammond explores the Étude in works by Lyapunov, Szymanowski, Kapustin and Chin, a truly international line up of composers (Russia, Poland and South Korea). The imaginative programme combines some of the most electrifying and adventurous piano works of the 20th and 21st centuries, ranging from the impassioned late-Romanticism of Sergei Lyapunov to the jazz-inspired rhythms of Nicolai Kapustin and the mercurial, post-Debussyan soundworld of Unsuk Chin. For Clare Hammond the choice of works on this disc represents some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and  the opportunity to explore what the piano is truly capable of. All the Études on the disc fulfil the traditional criteria of the Étude (in the Chopinesque sense) of a piece which combines the excitement of technical and virtuosic display with expression, colour and compositional inventiveness.

This disc is not only a showcase for the variety and ingenuity of these composers,  but also a fine vehicle for Clare Hammond to demonstrate a sparkling technical sure-footedness, clarity of touch and musical sensitivity (particularly in the Études by Chin, which are, by Clare’s own admission, extremely difficult). The works by Chin are more closely aligned to Clare’s particular interest in lesser-known and contemporary piano repertoire, for which she has received much praise, and these virtuosic and playful études skip and dance across the keyboard with wit, colour and vitality.

Clare brings a richness to the works by Lyapunov with which the disc begins. They recall the soundworld of Rachmaninoff in their scale and textures, and are modelled directly on Liszt’s set of the same title (Études d’exécution transcendante).

Karol Szymanowski’s Twelve Etudes, Op 33 share Chin’s interest in pianistic colour, and are more closely related the Études of Debussy rather than his fellow countryman Chopin. Fleet and mercurial, Clare deftly captures their transitory moods and luminous colours, dancing rhythms and haunting sonorities, while handling their technical demands with aplomb.

Finally, Five Études in Different Intervals complete this fascinating survey of the enduring appeal of the piano etude. Composed by Nikolai Kapustin, they are characteristic of his output, fusing formal classical structures with idioms drawn from jazz, which Kapustin studied from the age of 16. Clare pulls them off with precision and wit, and an evident relish for this kind of writing for the piano.

‘Étude’ by Clare Hammond is available on BIS Records label and is available from all major online retailers. 

Creating the Definitive Recording – an article by Clare Hammond on the process and experience of creating Étude