…….make sure it’s Stephen Hough’s new disc of piano music by Debussy (Hyperion).
I read Stephen’s illuminating article about Claude Debussy (New York Times, 2 March 2018) and then listened to his new disc of Debussy’s piano music (Estampes, Images, Children’s Corner, La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse). Here is Stephen writing on Pagodes, the first piece on his new disc:
[Debussy’s] use of its tonal color………is not so much a translation of a foreign text as it is a poem written in a newly learned, fully absorbed language
Stephen could be describing his own playing here (though he is far too modest to do so!). For those more used to hearing him play Liszt with cool yet colourful virtuosity, his Debussy playing is deliciously liquid, lucid, perfumed, sensuous and elegant. The phrasing and pacing is so natural and supple, fermatas and pauses so sensitively judged, touch, articulation and pedalling so clear and carefully nuanced, one has the sense that Stephen has also “fully absorbed” the composer’s language.
Take Pagodes, for example, the piece which opens this disc. Textures and lines emerge, blur and recede with all the ethereal delicacy of watercolour painting (and the suite Estampes is a reminder that Debussy loved art), but there is clarity too, so that every note sounds like a crystalline droplet. Reflets dans l’eau is similarly coloured, glistening and shimmering with subtlety and elegance. There’s nothing fussy or contrived in Stephen’s account of this music, and his assertion in the NYT article that Debussy was a “modern” composer is more than confirmed in his highlighting of the composer’s fondness for piquant or erotic harmonies, surprising melodic fragments (often using the pentatonic scale) and rhythmic quirks.
Children’s Corner proves as much a delight for adults as the young ones: snow dances with feathery delicacy, while The Little Shepherd a study in tender simplicity, tinged with poignancy. Strictly for adults, La plus que lente is wonderfully louche and languorous, with its late-night cocktail bar swagger. L’isle joyeuse closes this fine recording with a sparkling clarity, wit and sunlit joie de vivre
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) / Piano Music / Stephen Hough (piano) / Hyperion CDA68139
It is not that often a set of recordings comes along which is genuinely as much a revelation and surprise to the Bach initiate as this one. Wolfgang Rübsam’s current spate of recordings on his self-released ‘Counterpoint Records’ include the entire Well-Tempered Clavier (across 5 vols.), Art of Fugue and most recently a number of the Cello Suites (!), all of which are available only as downloads but thankfully in FLAC format as well as lossy MP3. They all feature an unfamiliar sound: the Lautenwerk or lute harpsichord, in this case one of only a few in existence, built by the fine and intrepid instrument maker, Keith Hill. Readers need look no further than Rübsam’s website for generous helpings of tracks from these CDs together with other recordings of Pachelbel, Buxtehude and Böhm (www.wolfgangrubsam.com/listen ). For me the recordings speak for themselves, and I have grown to like them even more over time, as well as slowly realising how far they go against the grain of traditional Bach keyboard interpretation. Those who are not instantly convinced may want to read on and reflect.
First let it be said that the Lautenwerk has a charm all of its own. The timbre outwardly resembles that of the buff stop that is featured on some harpsichords except that it is a lot fuller, mellow and, well, lute-like. Although notes die away rapidly a warm reverberation is created by a set of strings above that resonate in sympathy, rather like the effect contributed by the undamped final octave or so of strings on the piano. In fact, the ear does not seem to tire of this closely recorded sound as much as can be the case with the bright tone emitted by some conventional harpsichords, even after listening endlessly to it (on headphones). There is a gentle ease about it, matched by the ease and delight of the player. Sometimes the sound-world reminds me of arrangements of Renaissance polyphony for lute duet, and Rübsam manages to make the listener forget that this is actually a keyboard instrument, so nuanced is his touch.
The liberties the instrument itself seems to entice Rübsam towards, lead him beyond where most dare to tread in this very Germanic, learned repertoire. However, for me the results give a breath of fresh air to what can seem sometimes, even on the piano with all its dynamic variety, a rather trudging tradition of playing (I am thinking particularly of the fugues). In fact, I think this raises a whole heap of questions about how such music may have been brought to life by the player of an instrument where other parameters such as dynamics are so minimal. It is clear from the modern tendency to perform works like the Art of Fugue on strings and other combinations (not to mention piano) that the listener benefits from such individualisation of lines, yet Rübsam finds a viable and enchanting solution to this problem on the Lautenwerk by displacing one voice rhythmically from another resulting in a remarkably three-dimensional sense of the polyphony (Bradley Lehman has called his Bach ‘geodesic’), an effect that initially takes some getting used to.
This is nothing new for him. His two complete Bach organ cycles (particularly the later one for Naxos) show a subtle rhetorical approach to rhythm that, although requiring more concentration from the listener, is deeply rewarding in communicating the sense of metre, the stress of dissonances and light and shade of rhythmic groupings, and bears out repeated listens. This sensibility has been transmitted to the work of his students too, including Julia Brown’s brilliant Buxtehude complete organ series for Naxos. Rübsam himself also did quite a lot of piano recordings for Naxos that also show a distinctly free approach rarely heard in today’s pianistic Bach, saved from accusations of Romanticism by its accomplished ornamentation and deep awareness of style. The ornamentation on his Lautenwerk recordings is also very impressive and adds to the sense of freshness. Everything is on the table and there are no textbook solutions for Rübsam, who adds anything he chooses, before, on or after the beat. Hearing it is really thought-provoking, reminding me of the writings of Frederick Neumann, who has always criticised the dogmatic approach of some early music specialists in the light of contradictory evidence, emphasising the final arbiter of good taste over formula in this epoch, a concept reinforced in many treatises.
There is something luxuriant, deeply sensuous about this playing that I think reveals a kind of ultra-sensitive Bach that perhaps has been unfairly obscured from view by pianists and harpsichordists alike, but is now perhaps coming more into the open (a favourable comparison would be Richard Egarr’s WTC) even if historically one might speculate this to be closer to the performance traditions of the later Bach circle. Although we know of the importance of the clavichord to Bach, another instrument essentially lost to the modern concert world, it is interesting that the Lautenwerk also had a place close to Bach’s heart (two such instruments are listed in the inventory of his possessions at the time of his death) and these performances should perhaps make us think again about the expressive core of this music, its simultaneous expression of harmonic depth and contrapuntal complexity. I for one have never enjoyed the canons from The Art of Fugue so much as in the hands of this wise sage of Bach interpretation, who seems to care nothing for contemporary fashion and everything for the music, its world of overlapping voices and subtle comings and goings. It is fair to say you will find a whole universe here, the existence of which you might not even have suspected.
Dr Charles Tebbs is a freelance piano teacher, pianist, one-time harpsichordist, organist, and accordionist, recording fanatic (both making and listening to) who also composes from time to time (and is a recipient of two minor composition prizes). Special areas of interest include polyphonic music, jazz improvisation, historical keyboard performance practices from the 18th to early 20th century and early recordings. He has recorded a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano and made numerous contributions to YouTube. Current plans include recording the entire Well-Tempered Clavier Book One on the piano in a temperament other than equal.
When I put ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (Prima Facie records) into my CD player, my cat Monty immediately dashed into my office and up onto my desk to find the birds that sing so sweetly at the start of the title track of this new disc of music by Sadie Harrison. The piano enters, delicately yet brightly, imitating the twittering birdsong before moving into a lively, rhythmic passage. Ian Pace, the pianist for this track, is very much at home in contemporary and new music for piano, and it shows in the ease with which he handles technical difficulties and his vivid, immediate sound.
The variety of writing in just a few minutes of this piece signals the theme for the entire disc: it’s a wonderful example of Sadie’s compositional breadth and rich imagination and a lovely introduction to her colourful and accessible music. Not only does the disc demonstrate the range of Sadie’s compositional palette but it also showcases the talents of four excellent pianists – Ian Pace, Renée Reznek, Duncan Honeybourne and Philippa Harrison, all of whom have considerable experience in this type of repertoire and who bring myriad colours, timbre and musical sensitivity and individuality to each work on the disc.
Composed between 2011 and 2017, the pieces on this disc reveal the many contrasting styles within one composer’s output, reflecting Sadie’s wide-ranging musical and cultural influences, including the music of Bartok, Berg, Chopin, and Debussy, jazz legends Bill Evans, Fats Waller and Thelonius Monk, Methodist hymns, vintage film music, her passion for the cultures of Persia and Afghanistan (Sadie is Composer-in-Association of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music), and the natural world. In ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (the title is drawn from the translation of a Persian poem), near-Eastern folk idioms are woven into the starkly modernist suite of pieces Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq (played by Renée Reznek), while in Lunae ‘Four Nocturnes’ Duncan Honeybourne sensitively and sensuously illuminates the tender, intimate lyricism and delicate traceries of these delightful and arresting miniatures (I purchased the sheet music on the strength of this performance in order to learn the pieces myself). Philippa Harrison brings the requisite vibe and swing to the Four Jazz Portraits, capturing the style of each jazz great to whom they are dedicated; while in Shadows ‘Six Portraits of William Baines’ Sadie takes small quotations from Baines’ piano works and reflections on his diary entries to create intriguing miniatures, masterfully presented by Duncan Honeybourne. The Souls of Flowers recalls Chopin in its long-spun melodic lines and shimmering trills, while Northern Lights uses harmonies and idioms redolent of folksong and hymns. The final work, Luna…..for Nicola, is a tiny yet meaningful hommage to Nicola le Fanu, with whom Sadie studied for three years, and was written in response to hearing the premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s orchestral work ‘The Crimson Bird’. in February 2017.
The song of the nightingale is the unifying thread on this disc – in the third of the four Lunae, the evocation of Alabiev–Liszt’s ‘Le Rossignol’ as played by William Baines, and in the fluttering wings of Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq, but also less obviously in the use of trills, sparkling runs, chirruping note clusters and tremolandos.
This is wonderfully rewarding, varied and enjoyable disc, proof that contemporary piano music can be tuneful, attractive and entirely accessible. There is much to delight and challenge the pianist too: the pieces are generally within the capability of the intermediate to advanced player, and are available to purchase as scores (from University of York Music Press). I particularly like Sadie’s treatment of melodic fragments and her jazz-infused harmonies.
I have watched pianist Lucas Debargue with interest since he burst onto the international music scene as the “runner up” in the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition. Described as a “maverick” and a “late starter” because he didn’t have a traditional musical training in conservatoire and doesn’t wear the customary concert attire, he interests me because he has a very personal artistic vision and creative freedom – almost certainly the result of not following the traditional well-trod path of the young concert pianist. (The cover photo on his latest disc seems to reflect this – the artist treading a lonely, snowy path.)
Since then, he’s released two impressive recordings in quick succession. Now this much-anticipated third disc presents a brace of familiar Schubert sonatas – the so-called “little” sonatas in A minor (D784) and A Major (D664) – with a rarely-performed piece, Karol Szymanowski’s second piano sonata, also in A Major. Debargue brings a dark emotional intensity, poignancy and rugged earnestness, when called for, to the first Schubert sonata and also the Szymanowski, thus creating some interesting and satisfying links between two works which on first sight may not appear connected. He fully appreciates the bleak melancholy inherent in the D784 with its mysterious spare opening motif and the portentous trills and rumbling tremolandos, offset by passages of tender wistfulness (Schubert can feel even more tragic when writing in a major key). The Andante is elegantly paced, but not without its passions, while the finale is frenetic and anxious, its scurrying triplets tempered by sections of bittersweet lyricism.
Ostensibly more “cheerful”, the little A Major has its share of heartrending moments, not least in the second movement to which Debargue brings a desolate intimacy, without ever losing sight of the natural poetry of this music. The finale is sprightly with melodic clarity aplenty and much rhythmic verve.
Any pianist who records Schubert must be very sure of his or her ground, and in these sonatas Debargue displays a musical maturity and thoughtful insight to give a performance which is both convincing and personal.
There’s a brooding melancholy and blistering restlessness in the opening movement of the Syzmanowski sonata which recalls the dark clouds of Schubert’s D784, while the middle movement has a quirky Schubertian tread to it, initially dance-like then more sombre and funereal, and its unusual harmonic language, fluctuating tonalities, and expansiveness also recall Schubert’s writing. It’s a rewarding work, with its full-blooded passionate late-romantic textures (which have gone by the time Szymanowski wrote his third piano sonata), and Debargue is alert to its shifting palette and dark intensity, as well as its monumental structure and narrative thrust.
There’s nothing youthful or unformed about Debargue’s playing in all three works on this disc. There’s a genuine, uncontrived naturalness in his playing, especially in his use of tempo rubato, and his overall approach is mature and thoughtful, suggesting an artist who has not only fully immersed himself in this repertoire but also informed his playing via a wider cultural landscape and interests.
Andrew Matthews-Owen – Halo: Music for Piano (Nimbus)
At just 20, Yuanfan Yang is already a promising pianist and young composer. Winner of keyboard final of the 2012 BBC Young Musician, he has been a prizewinner in many other international piano competitions. The works by Schubert, Chopin and Liszt on his debut disc represent the kind of mainstream showpiece repertoire one expects from competition participants, and the music played is well-mannered and attractive, rather than attention-grabbing. Schubert’s ever-popular B-flat Impromptu has the requisite lyricism and grace, while the opening of Chopin’s darkly-hued Fantasie in F minor, Op 49 is ponderous rather than portentous. The ‘Winter Wind’ Etude and Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ are despatched with the kind of youthful gusto one would expect from a musician of this age who has been on the competition circuit for several years now: fleet and pristine fingerwork but rather bloodless in interpretation. La Vallee d’Obermann feels too restrained and lacks the grandeur and spaciousness to really recall the profound majesty of the Alps. Far more interesting are the works composed by Yuanfan himself, colourful programmatic pieces inspired by watercolours, whose titles link them to the pieces by Liszt on this disc and also to Philip Cashian’s ‘Landscape’ and Peter Maxwell-Davis’ ‘Farewell to Stromness’, the final work on the disc, which again feels too polite – a little more Scottish lilt would be welcome. Overall, a nicely-presented “recital” disc showcasing Yuanfan’s developing talents as both pianist and composer.
Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy presents an altogether more mature and convincing performance on his new album ‘Echoes’, which features repertoire by Bach and Rachmaninov which he first explored as a pianist in the early part of his career, all in fine transcriptions for the left hand alone. The final track on the disc is Paul Wittengenstein’s transcription of Bach’s evergreen Prelude in C. Like McCarthy, Wittengenstein was a left-handed pianist (he lost his right arm following an injury in the First World War). If you have seen Nicholas McCarthy in concert you will know that as a left-handed player he is incredibly athletic, utilising the entire range of the keyboard. Nicholas is no novelty act pianist; he is a serious concert pianist whose superb technical ability and musicality enable him to create a rich palette of sounds, colours and shadings, from full-bodied fortissimos to delicate pianissimos, and elegant, lyrical cantabile playing (try the Andante from Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata Op 19 or Bach’s Prelude in C for particularly lovely examples of this). The album begins with a robust and entirely convincing transcription of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor. It loses nothing being played with only one hand, and the same is true for all the pieces on this disc. You would never guess that this music is played with the left hand only, such is the quality and clarity of Nicholas’s sound. The album was recorded on a Yamaha CFX concert grand and the sound quality is direct but never strident with a warm resonance, particularly in the bass. Recommended.
‘Halo’ is Andrew Matthews-Owen‘s first solo disc. A highly sought-after collaborative pianist and song accompanist and noted champion of contemporary music, Matthews-Owen showcases his affinity for this repertoire in this rewarding recording of contrasting works by Joseph Phibbs, Dobrinka Tabakova and Hannah Kendall. Phibbs’ Preludes (2016) were dedicated to Matthews-Owen and are short aphoristic works whose spare simplicity, delicate melodic fragments and piquant harmonies are redolent of Schoenberg’s Kleine Klavierstucke. Matthews-Owen’s directness and clarity allows these short works to speak for themselves. Dobrinka Tabakova’s ‘Modétudes’ – brief “studies” based on the main modes (Dorian, Lydian, Phrygian etc) – are characterful miniatures whose individual musical personalities Matthews-Owen delineates with delicacy and precision, alert to their ever-shifting moods. They are folksy in their idioms and immediately accessible to the listener. Hannah Kendall’s ‘On a Chequer’d Field Array’d’ is a work in three parts, inspired by a game of chess: again, Matthews-Owen is always sensitive to the contrasts and switches of emotion in this music. Tabakova’s ‘Nocturne’ is delightful, delicate and songful, while her ‘Halo’, evoking a lunar halo seen one summer’s night, is powerfully atmospheric (the second movement, ‘To blinding shine’ for example, begins with bright rapidly repeating notes, interjected with a hymn-like motif, somewhat reminiscent of Hovhaness’s Visionary Landscapes, before moving into far more dramatic territory). This disc is a splendid advocate for contemporary piano music from a performer whose understanding of and affinity for this music is clear from the very first note to the last.
This is a solo piano album of austere wonder. Composer and performer Mark Deeks hails from Northumberland, and in tribute to his home patch, the eight original pieces here are named in the county’s old dialect (the album also includes a cover version of John Ireland’s ‘Sea Fever’). A water theme runs through the record like a river, with tracks named for waves, floods, showers, ice… so we have, in some ways, a tone poem: a suite of works that, over its running time, builds a picture of the North Sea coastline in audio.
To do this successfully, there would have to be a starkness to underpin the picturesque, and MD achieves that balance perfectly – the music is beautiful throughout, but favours sparse reflection over ‘prettiness’. I think listeners of Glass, say, or Satie would find much to enjoy in these pieces: that’s not to simplify and say that MD is ‘like’ those composers – more that he also prizes the effects of a rhythmic pattern, the power of a silence, and the value of unhurried contemplation.
While the album sustains a coherent mood, close and repeated listening reveals the individual personalities of each track, the way they embody their liquid titles. For example, opening track ‘Wǽg’ (‘Wave’) features an undulating rhythm in the bass, perhaps unsurprisingly – but above that, the melody not only turns about itself in an ebb and flow movement, the chords cut across the bassline as if ‘breaking’ onto the shore. While later in the sequence, ‘Scúr’ (‘Shower’) moves the initial, insistent rhythm into the right hand, as if the rain is starting to pitter-patter onto the ground.
The superb ‘Flódas’ (‘Floods’) moves along with a more hyperactive, unpredictable gait, and ramps up the intensity until the melody almost breaks – bursts its banks. While the serene ‘Gyrwe’ (‘Wetlands’) – for me, one of the album’s absolute highlights – allows its left-hand to glide calmly while the restrained, delicately-judged interventions of the right-hand conjure up the momentary drips and breeze-driven disturbances from the reeds and grasses.
I was completely won over by this record’s confident restraint: give it time and drift through its space.
It’s also worth mentioning that, perhaps due to its steady pace and focus on melodic ambience, much of the suite sounds accessible to fellow pianists – and sure enough, Mark Deeks has produced a very limited run of sheet music for the album, available to buy alongside the CD. To buy either – or, let’s not be coy, both, you can visit the artist’s Bandcamp page for the album here.
Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at http://www.adrianspecs.blogspot.co.uk
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