‘Variations for Judith’ at the University of Kent, Canterbury

‘Variations for Judith’ is a set of 11 short reflections on ‘Bist du bei mir’ (G H Stölzel arr. JS Bach). The Variations were composed as a special gift for Judith Serota when she left the Spitalfields Festival in 2007 after nearly twenty years at the helm. The project, to create 11 short pieces, was managed by Diana Burrell (who also wrote one of the variations) and the variations are composed by other Spitalfields Festival Artistic Directors, all people with whom Judith worked. An initial collection of seven variations was presented to Judith and a further four were added, all by composers associated with the Spitalfields Festival. The Variations hark back to a precedent probably set by J S Bach – a collection of short pieces of varying difficulty, and rather like Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, which Bach presented to his wife, the Variations for Judith were presented to Judith Serota to encourage and inspire her own piano studies.

I first encountered the Variations last autumn after reading a review on another music blog. I then listened to Melvyn Tan’s recording (available on Spotify and as a download here) and decided I would like to learn some, if not all of them, to include in a concert I was putting together for my local music society. Their chief attraction is their variety and individual characters, with the original theme, which appears in different guises in each variation (in some less discernible than others, but always there), acting as a unifying thread. They are also an excellent way of introducing contemporary piano music to audiences and piano students. I was very touched when Judith Serota came out to Teddington to hear me play three of the Variations, and she kindly talked about the creation of the music after my concert.

Thus, I was delighted to discover that Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent, was involved in a project called ‘A Variation Day’, in which he performed a single variation over the course of 11 days. Each day, the theme was sung by soprano and final-year student Kathryn Cox. At the end of the 11 day-project, Daniel performed the complete Variations in a concert which also included the UK premiere of a work by British composer Alison Wrenn.

The Colyer-Fergusson Hall, University of Kent
The Colyer-Fergusson Hall, University of Kent

The concert was held in the beautiful wood-panelled Colyer-Fergusson hall at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Opened in 2012, the hall forms the centrepiece of a new music centre at the University, and is an airy performance space – and on this early March day, a space saturated with sunlight. The concert opened with Satie’s first Gnossienne, rarely-heard and played with a melancholic suppleness.

Alison Wrenn’s ‘Unicorn in Rainbows’ followed, a beautiful short work inspired by a picture of three unicorns in a magical landscape under a rainbow sky, infused with jazz harmonies, lingering chords redolent of Bill Evans, and subtle rhythms. This set the scene nicely for the centrepiece of the concert, the ‘Variations for Judith’.

The opening theme was sung by Kathryn Cox, whose clear soprano allowed the music to speak for itself, unadorned, setting a blank canvas on which the Variations were painted with elegance, wit and sensitivity. Daniel played with subtlety and delicacy of touch, revealing each variation’s individual character and the connections between them. Some are fleeting and ethereal, others more robust; each is distinct, with the composer’s individual personality shining through; yet they are all united by the opening theme, which became a pleasing earworm for my homeward journey through the sun-drenched Kent countryside.

Kathryn Cox, soprano, Judith Serota & Daniel Harding, piano
Kathryn Cox, soprano, Judith Serota & Daniel Harding, piano

The pieces are aimed at the intermediate-level player, but studying and playing the works myself, and hearing the complete set performed by Daniel, proved that writing easier pieces can be a challenge. The Variations work beautifully as concert pieces, and can be successfully integrated into a larger programme of works by composers old and new. And because the Variations are not organised in the manner of a classical theme and variations, one can perform the opening theme with a handful of contrasting variations, and in any order.

The music is available from Music Room and proceeds from the sale of the Variations go to Dimbleby Cancer Care

The work was premiered on 8th June 2012. Melvyn Tan will be performing Variations for Judith on 27th and 29th April – details here

More information about Variations for Judith on the NMC Recordings website.

Read Daniel Harding’s article on the Variations