Horae (pro clara) – Kenneth Hesketh

hesketh_coverThe latest release from pianist Clare Hammond is a disc for BIS Records of solo piano music by British composer Kenneth Hesketh –  Horae (pro clara) (2011/12), Notte Oscura (2002), Through Magic Casements (2008) and Three Japanese Miniatures (2002).

Horae (pro clara) was written for Clare Hammond following Kenneth Hesketh’s meeting with Clare at her debut recital at the Southbank Centre in 2010. They have subsequently developed a close artistic collaboration.

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Clare Hammond (photo: Julie Kim)
Clare says of Ken’s music that “it can seem overwhelming at times, yet if one engages with its textural intricacy, the scope of his extra-musical allusions, and volatile virtuosity, rich rewards lie in store”. Clare seems ideally suited to this type of repertoire. Her debut album, Piano Polytych, containing works by Kenneth Hesketh, Julian Anderson, Piers Hellawell, Giles Swayne and Philip Grange, revealed her to be a fine advocate for contemporary piano repertoire, combining flawless technique with a sharp intellect and musical sensitivity to bring such works to life with colour, vibrancy and rhythmic precision, and totally without the self-consciousness or affectation that sometimes accompanies performances of this type of repertoire.

Kenneth Hesketh’s musical language is drawn from a broad range of stimuli, including classical architecture, medieval iconography, poetry, Bauhaus constructivism and existentialism, and these extra-musical references bring texture, structure and a wide range of moods, tempi, colour and piquancy to his music. The works presented on this disc are complex, both technically and musically, with dense textures and abrupt voltes faces between the macabre and grotesque and the delicate and poignant. What Clare Hammond does so well is to bring a sparkling clarity to the tightly-packed textures without comprising her sensitive musicality and her ability to shift seamlessly between the myriad moods and styles of the pieces.

The first work on this disc, Through Magic Casements, takes its title from Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale and much of its soundworld seems to echo the imagery of the poem with its urgent febrile passages which fade to nothing at the end.

The work which occupies most of the disc, Horae (pro clara), was premiered by Clare Hammond at the Cheltenham Festival in July 2013, and consists of twelve miniatures which as a whole form a ‘breviary’ or book of hours. The movements are not titled; instead they have evocative performance directions and some incorporate literary references. Thematic material, such as Hesketh’s fascination with machines and automata, is shared across the set, thus linking the pieces, though they can be performed in any order. Some contain dense thickets of notes and melodic lines, abrupt and plangent bass interruptions, and vibrant rhythms (VII: Capriccioso), while others comprise spare shards and delicate scurrying traceries (VI: Nervoso, ma dolce, for example).

The third work Notte Oscura (2002) is a piano transcription of the first interlude in Hesketh’s opera The Overcoat, after Nikolai Gogol, and in it Hesketh highlights Gogol’s description of St Petersburg’s powerful and all-pervasive cold. The opening bass chords are perfectly judged by Clare Hammond, lending a sense of foreboding before the music moves into a more melodic passage, though the mood of menace and anxiety is never far away. Repeated tremolo notes high in the register suggest shards of ice, while the bass sonorities conjure up the vastness of the Russian landscape.

The suite Three Japanese Miniatures concludes the disc. The works are drawn from fragments and paraphrases of a larger work by Hesketh inspired by Japanese folk tales and each movement portrays a story, from a nocturnal wanderer who finds himself amid the imposing grandeur of a ruined temple to a winter sprite who takes revenge on a broken promise by taking the lives of a man and his children and finally the story of Bumbuku, a daemon who takes the form of a badger and lives in a tea kettle. The works are expressive, haunting and humorous, and, as in the previous works on this disc, Clare highlights their distinctive narratives with precise articulation and a vivid palette of musical colour.

Horae (pro clara) is released on 27 May on the BIS label. Further information and sound clips here

An interview with composer Kenneth Hesketh will appear in the Meet the Artist series on 2 June

Clare Hammond is the recent recipient of a Royal Philharmonic Society young artist award