variations_coverIt’s a simple concept – a theme, or melody, initially stated in its original form, is put through a series of transformations, often quite complex and including textural, dynamic and key changes, to take player and listener on a fascinating musical journey. The Theme and Variations remains a popular genre amongst composers and the myriad ways in which composers respond to this simple form has resulted in some of the most inventive, intriguing and daring music in the piano’s repertoire.

For her new release for BIS, pianist Clare Hammond has chosen to focus on themes and variations from the 20th and 21st centuries which demonstrate a wide range of emotions and expression, from Syzmanowski’s heartfelt and atmospheric Variations on a Polish Theme, replete with Chopinesque filigree decoration and a tender, introspective lyricism, to Sofia Gubaidulina’s imposing and dramatic Chaconne. These works bookend variations by Lachenmann, Birtwistle (his own tribute to Bach’s Goldberg Variations), Adams, Copland and Hindemith. Throughout, one has the sense of composers revelling in the Theme and Variations genre: the angular, abstract modernism of Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations, perhaps the most “unpianistic” work on the disc with its extreme contrasts, for which Hammond makes a convincing case for it, is offset by the expressive poignancy of Hindemith’s Variations (1936), here given a haunting reading by Hammond. John Adam’s I Still Play (2017) is a an attractive, melodic miniature, written with the accomplished amateur player in mind, whose winding waltz moves through a variety of stylistic allusions, including nods to Erik Satie and Bill Evans. The music never fully settles and Hammond is ever alert to its shifts and switches. It’s refreshing listening after the spiky atonality and dynamic outburst of Harrison Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain. Helmut Lachenmann’s Five Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert start out in familiar territory – the theme is taken from Schubert’s Ecossaise D 643 – and the variations which follow refer back to the warmth of Schubert’s original interspersed with moments of playful wit, almost camp theatrical drama or turbulent frenzy. Again, Hammond’s account demonstrates how adept she is at handling music which switches between styles, textures and moods.

This interesting compilation of music offers a new angle on a well-known genre, eloquently and vividly portrayed by Clare Hammond, who shows an impressive fearlessness in tackling and recording some of the more complex or obtuse corners of the modern piano repertoire. It also serves as an excellent companion piece to her earlier recording Étude (also on the BIS label), exploring piano etudes by Lyapunov, Unsuk Chin, Syzmanowski and Kapustin.

Meet the Artist interview with Clare Hammond


Variations – Clare Hammond, piano

BIS RECORDS BIS-2493 SACD
Recorded December 2019 at Potton Hall

034571282602‘Vida Breve’ (Short Life) – Stephen Hough, piano (Hyperion CDA68260)

It seems fitting that Stephen Hough’s new album ‘Vida Breve’, featuring music on the theme of death, should be released while we are still in the thrall of the coronavirus. But this album is not a response to the pandemic and was in fact conceived and recorded long before any of us had heard of coronavirus or COVID-19.

Yet its theme is highly relevant to our Corona times when death dominates the news, from the daily tally of COVID deaths and grim predictions from scientific and medical experts. Despite this, as Stephen Hough says in the CD’s liner notes, we are still reluctant to talk about death, a reluctance which has increased over the past 50-odd years during which medical science has made it possible for people survive better and for longer and has led to a greater disassociation from and hyper-sensitivity to discussions about death.

For artists, writers and composers death has always been a central preoccupation, resulting in some of the most extraordinary, exultant and emotionally profound expression in painting, literature and music – amply demonstrated in the works on Hough’s new album. In the nineteenth century people were far closer to death than we are today, and for Chopin (whose short life was dogged by ill-health), Liszt and Busoni, composers whose music is included on this CD, death was understood and accepted as part of the natural course of life.

As a Catholic, I suspect Stephen Hough has a fairly robust attitude towards death, perhaps more closely aligned to that of the composers featured on his new disc (and remember Liszt was a devout Catholic). Hough’s faith teaches us not to fear death but to accept it as the only certainty in life, and his own piano sonata ‘Vida Breve’, the work which lends its title to the disc, explores the brevity of life, a reminder that our allocated time is short. An abstract, introspective work constructed of five tiny motivic cells, which interact contrapuntally and include a quotation from the French chanson En Avril à Paris, made famous by Charles Trenet, ‘Vida Breve’ lasts a mere 10 minutes, a comment on the transient, fleeting nature of life, its passions and turmoil.

Bach’s mighty Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita opens this recording, in Busoni’s glorious, romantic transcription for solo piano. This epic cathedral of sound is an awe-inspiring, emphatic opener (Hough played it at his Wigmore Hall livestream concert in June 2020), and here Hough gives it an authoritative, multi-layered, orchestral monumentalism. It’s opening is dark and sombre, yet the processional nature of this piece, with its sense of building, dying back, then increasing again, brings a remarkably uplifting atmosphere to this music, and of course its final cadence, a Picardy Third, ensures that it closes with a clear sense of positivity.

After the towering majesty of the Chaconne, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is fleet and turbulent, its anxious intensity tempered when Hough lingers over the more lyrical Nocturne-like passages in the opening movement and the Scherzo, or when he allows the essential nobility of the music to shine through over disruptive bass motifs. Like the Chaconne, the famous Marche funèbre is magisterial rather than simply funereal, while the tender, dreamy middle section lends an other-worldliness to the music’s atmosphere before the tolling bass and mournful theme return.

In addition to the thematic associations between the pieces, there are musical connections too: the dark rumbling bass octaves in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne are reiterated in the Marche funèbre – a plangent left hand accompaniment which, in the reprise of the famous theme dominates, with a dark tolling grandeur. And this figure is later heard again in the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles, to which Hough brings an ominous darkness, its slow-march meter suggesting the dead weight of a bier on the shoulders who carry it, before a more reflective, wistful section. The other piece by Liszt, the Bagatelle Sans Tonalité, is a musical gargoyle with its wayward harmonic language and grimacing, dancing rhythms.

The remaining works on the disc are encores of a sort – a reminder that this final recital is not quite over….. Busoni’s Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen uses familiar melodies and motifs from Bizet’s opera and transforms them into a witty concert piece, to which Hough brings a warm romanticism. His own transcription of Arirang, a traditional Korean folksong, is gentle and contemplative, its lyrical melody singing out over a flowing accompaniment. It leads naturally into Gounod’s recasting of Bach’s Prelude in C into Ave Maria (also transcribed by Hough), a popular work at funerals, perhaps because it is both perfect music for the transit to the afterlife and for reflections on life and the inevitability of its end. Death, now where is thy sting?

This album is masterly is its programming; stimulating and provocative, it’s a superb recital disc and, being Hough, the music is thoughtfully chosen and impeccably played.

Highly recommended

FW


‘Vida Breve’ is released by Hyperion on 29 January 2021. 

This review first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist site

What is it about the Goldberg Variations which gives them such an enduring appeal? Two new recordings have been released in as many months, by two leading pianists of the 21st-century, yet each quite different in their approach. Maybe it is because Bach gives few performance directions, a lack of specificity which allows performers the freedom to make personal choices about the interpretative possibilities of this music. This is certainly true of these two new recordings.

Lang Lang’s Goldbergs (DG), released in September as a double album of studio and live recordings, is bright in sound and lavish in presentation. Some of the tempi are questionable, with elastic rubato stretched just a little too far, presumably intended to convey meaning or deep emotion, and the faster variations are rather showily bombastic. Listening at home, it feels like an extrovert and spirited concert performance, occasionally just too declamatory (though one can of course turn the volume down a notch or two!), but I have to admit that overall I enjoyed Lang Lang’s Goldbergs. There’s a freshness in his approach and he manages a singing tone with a bright, colourful piano sound, and I take issue with those who have suggested that he should not touch this music, which enjoys such an elevated status in the canon of keyboard music. In my view, the music is there to be played, by anyone who chooses to play it, and Lang Lang makes a good case for being considered a serious musician, rather than a flamboyant showman (in fact, he is both) with his recordings of the Goldbergs.

At the other end of the spectrum, musically and presentationally, is the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, whose concert performances and recordings are imbued with a special sensitivity and emotional intelligence. Modest in mannerisms and presence, Kolesnikov could not be further from Lang Lang.  Rightly described as a “poet” of the piano, he can nuance his touch and dynamics in such a way that the slightest shift in sonority speaks volumes in terms of mood and narrative.

2pavel_kolesnikov_copyright_eva_vermandel

With these qualities to his playing, it is no surprise that Kolesnikov’s version of the Goldbergs is rich in intimacy, reminding us that this music was, it is said, composed as a distraction for the insomniac Baron (later Count) Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador at the Dresden electoral court. The famous opening Aria barely announces itself, gently insinuating its simple, elegant melody into the ear and the consciousness. In Kolesnikov’s hands it’s a miniature study in elegance and other-worldly serenity. A calmness flows through the music, setting the tone for the entire work. Even in the up tempo or more lively variations, where there is palpable drama and robustness, Kolesnikov still retains an underlying sense of measured thoughtfulness.

But for me it is his touch which really captivates and delights: filigree ornaments and trills, passage work in which his quicksilver fingers appear to float across the keys, yet without losing definition. His textures flicker in and out of focus – now crispy defined, now delicately veiled and muted, yet throughout there is clarity of articulation, structure and musical vision.

And there is one particular moment which really stops you in your tracks – and may have Bach purists clutching at their pearls. Did he really do that? Variation 30 segues from the one before it in a bloom of sound, the sustaining pedal creating an unexpected and intriguing extra sonic layer before fading away to allow the Aria to return like a memory of times past.

This recording is the result of Kolesnikov’s collaboration with dancer and choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and the spirit of the dance, which infuses so much of Bach’s music, is never far away in the delightful playfulness of Kolesnikov’s approach to Bach’s rhythms and counterpoint. This is an exquisitely tasteful and original account, recorded on a modern Yamaha grand piano on which Kolesnikov manages to recreate the softly-spoken sonorities of a clavichord or fortepiano (in preparing for the recording Kolesnikov worked on a number of different instruments “switching between them, in order to loosen up a little, to shake up my perception of sound of piano“.

What these two recordings prove – and the many, many others which exist – is that the Goldberg Variations is music without consensus: there are clichés about how Bach’s music should be played – from the period instrument zealots to the iconoclasts – and traditional views about how it should be played on the modern piano, but in fact there is no “right way”, nor who should play it, and the Goldberg Variations remain extraordinarily fertile terrain for those who choose to walk there.


Photo credit: Eva Vermandel

Good Night! – Bertrand Chamayou, piano (Erato/Warner Classics)

Don’t listen to this album if you’ve got work to do or a project to complete. This captivating, engrossing album of lullabies, or berceuses, will make you want to ease back in your chair, or retreat to somewhere more comfortable – perhaps a chaise longue, or even your bed. Turn the lights low and allow pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s exquisite, expressive soundworld to envelope you (the album is recorded in Dolby Atmos immersive sound which is at once intimate and vivid).

For Chamayou, a self-confessed night owl who resists the calls of Morpheus and relishes the tension between the awake and almost-but-not-quite asleep states, the lullaby’s “place is halfway between dream and reality”, a curious borderland of the most varied emotions, from tenderness to fear (fear of the dark, fear of nightmares), delight to anguish when night thoughts can overwhelm and give little chance of rest. The lullaby is also representative of the special bond between babies and children and their parents and carers, who provide comfort and reassurance.

The inspiration behind this album was in part due to Chamayou recently becoming a father himself, taking on the roles of “tucker-up and comforter”. The piano repertoire contains some of the most beautiful examples in the genre, from the rocking bass line and delicate filigree figurations of Chopin’s Berceuse to Brahms’s ever-popular Wiegenlied (Cradle Song). But Chamayou also reveals some lesser-known lullabies by Lyapunov, Mel Bonis and Martinů. Nor is the night-time landscape always calm and restful: A probezinha (‘poor little waif’)from Villa-Lobos’ ‘Prole de bebê’ is tinged with melancholy; Busoni’s Berceuse is dark and hallucinatory, for which Chamayou creates an almost impressionistic wash of sound and colour, and Balakirev’s has a nightmarish funeral march at its centre; even Grieg’s Berceuse from Lyric Pieces Book 2, has an unsettling middle section; meanwhile, the spiky, tinkling notes of Lachenmann’s Wiegenmusik hint at the nighttime fears provoked by shadows dancing on the bedroom wall. But serenity is restored by Brahm’s famous lullaby which follows it. In Chamayou’s hands it is as warm and comforting as a mother’s embrace, enhanced by the Dolby Atmos sound which creates an enveloping resonance.

The album title comes from the first track ‘Good Night!’ from Janacek’s suite On An Overgrown Pat’, a piano miniature in which the briefest of ideas is obssessed over to produce music freighted with a poignant tenderness. Meanwhile, Bryce Dessner’s ‘Song For Octave’, written for his own son, has a hynoptic ostinato redolent of Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and a haunting minimalist melody. Chamayou’s transparent sound here is utterly spellbinding (and it’s a piece I wanted to learn myself the moment I heard it).

At the risk of sounding a little trite, each work on this bewitching disc is lovingly played, Chamayou finding much beauty and elegance in simple lyrical melodies and gossamer figurations. His tempos are sensitive and supple, with an insouciant rubato which never feels contrived, and he convincingly portrays the individual character of each piece with clarity, wit and imagination.

We live in noisy, anxious times and this charming album offers much-needed respite and a balm to the soul

Recommended

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Pianist Igor Levit is one of the heroes of lockdown – a “key worker”(!), if you will, who provided comfort and distraction in those anxious, early days of the pandemic. At a time when the concert halls of the world were shuttered and silent, Levit gave hauskonzerts from his home in Berlin, broadcast live on Twitter. Each day he would announce a programme and a time to tune in. He streamed more than 50 concerts, performing on a 1920s Steinway B that had once belonged to the Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. He dressed casually and gave a brief introduction to each performance in German and English – no need for the formality and etiquette of the Wigmore Hall here. He played Bach and Schubert (a tear-jerkingly wonderful D960), Beethoven and Feldman, and people tuned in from around the world. His daily house concerts provided an anchor in a troubled sea.

Maybe for the first time do I understand what it means to speak of music as something life-keeping. It really keeps me alive. . . . I don’t care if it’s wrong or right, whatever B.S. that means….” said Levit in an interview with Alex Ross of The New Yorker. His house concerts challenged our notions of what a concert really is, reminding us that we don’t have to sit in stiff, reverential silence in plush red velvet seats to feel the power of the collective shared experience of music. Separated by a global pandemic, confined to our homes, music connected us, delighted, soothed and comforted us.

Levit’s new album, Encounter, which comes just two years after the release of ‘Life’ (my album of the year in 2018), confirms the spirit of his hauskonzerts. Here is music by Bach-Busoni, Brahms-Busoni, Reger and Feldman that seeks to comfort the soul and provide inner strength while expressing a desire for encounters and togetherness in a world fractured by a global pandemic. Like ‘Life’, it is another very personal album for Levit, the repertoire carefully chosen: these are “works in which all questions about love and death, loneliness and the possibility of real love for others are examined“. The pieces on ‘Encounter’ were those which drew especially positive comments from Levit’s online audience.

The entire album has a processional quality, leading the listener to the hushed serenity of Morton Feldman’s final work for piano – and the final work on this disc – Palais de Mari, a 28-minute contemplation, meditation, or what you will, of exquisitely-placed notes and piquant chords that fall upon the ears and mind like the softest of summer showers. It works in the same way as Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ did on ‘Life’ – the sentiments of the music match the intensity and spirituality of the works that precede it, yet it also provides a contrast in its delicate minimalist textures and hauntingly spacious pauses.

No one questions the spirituality of J S Bach, but Levit thankfully steers away from an overly-reverential approach which colours so many performances of his music. Alert to the contrasting characters of the Chorale Preludes, elegantly and occasionally flamboyantly transcribed for solo piano by Ferruccio Busoni, Levit finds vibrancy and immediacy, authority, solemnity and joy, and draws on the full range of the piano’s sound and resonance to highlight the voices and layers of this music.

Brahms’ six Chorale Preludes, also transcribed by Busoni, are rarely-heard as a set, and Levit successfully sustains the devotional, introspective nature of these pieces, almost to the point of intimacy. Reger’s transcriptions of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) are similarly pensive, and Levit’s sensitivity of touch and musical imagination save them from becoming overwhelmed by the richness of their textures.

Reger’s Nachtlied, a sacred motet for unaccompanied mixed choir, provides the bridge to Feldman in this transcription for piano by Julian Becker. Its textures are more transparent, its mood gentler and more prayer-like, settling the listener in for Feldman’s music, which gradually retreats into its own world with a sense of closure and inner calm.

The album was recorded in May at Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche and is best heard in one sitting, as if as a recital – because here Levit manages to create a very palpable, highly concentrated musical presence throughout the recording.

‘Encounter’ is available on the Sony Classical label and via streaming services

Ann Martin-Davis, piano (Guild Music)

519yhdkc-cl._sy400_Maurice Ravel has been an enduring part of pianist Ann Martin-Davis’ musical life and in the liner notes to her new collection of his piano music, she relates an anecdote which gave her a special connection to the composer. Having played the middle movement of Ravel’s Sonatine to the renowned pianist and teacher Phyllis Sellick who was adjudicating a competition, Ann became Sellick’s “newest (and smallest) recruit”. Sellick revealed that she too had played the very same movement to the composer himself (introduced to him in Paris through her own teacher, Isidore Philipp), who had remarked that it was “pas mal” (“not bad”). When Ann asked her teacher what Ravel was like, Sellick replied that he was “all pointy – pointy hair, pointy nose, pointy clothes”. 

Ravel had a reputation for meticulous dress and reserved social manner. The image on the cover of the CD liner notes shows Ravel in an elegantly-cut tweed suit with a single carnation in his button hole, and this perhaps hints at the musical personality too: colourful, sensuous and flamboyant, but also intimate and tender.

Le Langage des Fleurs, Ann Martin-Davis’ new disc of Ravel piano music includes the much-loved Pavane pour une infante défunte, Sonatine, Tombeau de Couperin and a selection of the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, as well as shorter piano works and miniatures. As part of her research for the recording, Ann read (and recommends) Professor Michael Puri’s groundbreaking book ‘Ravel the Decadent’, which places Ravel’s music in the context of the late nineteenth-century cultural and artistic phenomenon of Decadence, rather than that of the Neo-Classical or Symbolist labels more normally applied to his music.

This is certainly confirmed in Ann’s approach to the music. While there’s a fin de siècle poignancy and intimacy to the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, elegance is tempered by an almost naughty playfulness and a hip-swinging sensuousness to the waltz rhythms, suggesting hidden pleasures of a more taboo kind. This is music redolent of the scent of Gauloises, Pastis – maybe even a hint of Absinthe –  cologne, and the heavy heat of the Med in high summer. Ann’s supple tempi and pitch-perfect rubato are balanced by crisp articulation and a lovely translucence of tone.

This is even more evident in the Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s hommage to thekeyboard suites of the great French clavecinistes Couperin and Rameau, and also a dedication to friends of the composer who died during the First World War. A bright, direct sound brings immediacy and drama while also highlighting the Baroque structures of this music. But it is not without emotion – far from it, in fact, especially in the Menuet, which is wistful and tender. The final movement Toccata, by contrast, sparkles with vigour, Ann’s airy, fleet-fingered touch bringing its figurations to life with vivid colour and imagination.

The music on this disc represents about half of Ravel’s output for the piano, and the smaller works, such as the insouciant À la manière de Borodine and the Meneut sur le nom de Haydn, sit well with the longer suites. The selection closes with the much-loved Sonatine, utterly beguiling in its delicacy and simplicity, impeccably and imaginatively interpreted by Ann.

If you, like me, were not able to get to the south of France on holiday this year (my holiday, like so many others, had to be cancelled due to coronavirus), this disc is a delightful evocation of the heady scents, sounds and ambiance of that part of France.

Recommended.