9/11 : 20

Memorials on the twentieth anniversary of September 11th

Adam Swayne, piano

British pianist Adam Swayne’s latest disc marks the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 – a date which is deeply, painfully etched on our collective modern memory – and seeks to demonstrate ways in which composers memorialise or commemorate disaster through works by three American composers which deal with the events of 9/11 and their aftermath.

Karen Walwyn’s suite ‘Reflections on 9/11’ reference September 11, 2001 directly, and the time since, but the attacks themselves are absent. Instead, in Anguish (No. 3)  a plaintive melody is grafted onto an unsettled arpeggio accompaniment, redolent of Ravel’s Ondine. Growing increasingly textural and virtuosic, the music descends into trauma, with dissonant bell-sounds heard through a hectic melee of notes, before a reprise of the opening. Burial (No. 6), by contrast is sombre and introspective with an ostinato bass overlaid by an elegaic melody. A series of key changes lift and pierce before the music settles back into f minor with a sense of acceptance and, ultimately, hope.

These two pieces set the tone for the whole album: here we have music which memorialises rather than portrays the actual cataclysmic events, with a range of emotions from profound melancholy to anger, sorrow to resignation.

The centre-piece of the disc is ‘Sudden Memorials’, a brand new work by Kevin Malone, who has written eight works to date reflecting on the events and aftermath of 9/11. In 2006, he visited Shanksville, Pennsylvania, close to the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93. The perimeter fence is adorned with objects of remembrance and honour, left by visitors to the site; such public forms of commemoration have become common in recent years (flowers, candles, stuffed animals, religious objects) as a means for people to mark their own history and to create a public space for individuals and communities to unite in and express their grief.  Malone’s 30-minute composition captures in sound the instant and transient memorials that friends and relatives leave at the scene of a tragedy. Specially commissioned by Adam Swayne, the music reflects these myriad, fleeting memorials through brief quotations and “found” fragments from and references to, for example, hymn tunes, sports songs, gospel, Debussy, Chopin, lounge jazz and even birdsong; like the personal memorials on the Shanksville fence, these musical fragments are intended to trigger emotional responses from innocence and hope to grief, resignation and spiritual contemplation. The piece is dedicated to Adam Swayne, Adam, who gives the world première of the piece at London’s Wigmore Hall on 11th September 2021 at 1pm, the exact hour in Britain twenty years on the from the beginning of 9/11.

Memorial Fence 4

The other contemporary work on the disc is ‘Missing Towers’ by David Dei Tredici, the third part of his four-part Gotham Glory (2004). A two-part canon is used to symbolise the Twin Towers, while the music seeks to portray in miniature the epic scale of the absence and emptiness created by the collapse of those buildings. An arresting, reflective piece and a fitting close to the album.

 

This is not angry music (for that see Adam Swayne’s previous album). It does not rage against circumstances nor wring its hands in sorrow; yet one senses the grief and fury, held in check but only just beneath the surface. The music is spare, stoical, fragile, tender as a bruise, yet we know the wounds go much, much deeper. It’s music of extraordinary beauty and poignancy, shot through with memories, riven with emotion, yet never sentimental. 

These contemporary pieces are interleaved with works by American composers from a century earlier. ‘The Tides of Manaunaun’ by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was inspired Irish mythology and portrays the marine effects created when Manaunaun, the Irish god of the sea swayed the particles of the cosmos in rhythmical, tidal movements “so that they should remain fresh when the time came for their use in the building of the universe” (Henry Cowell). The pieces requires the pianist to use the forearm to play large note clusters and the resulting timbres, textures and rolling rhythms are evocative of the violent movement of the ocean (and by association, perhaps, the roar of explosions and the sounds of falling buildings?). Over this dramatic, plangent bass line is a melody suggestive of an American hymn tune or spiritual. By contrast, ‘Fabric’ is almost romantic in style, but its contrapuntal lines and twining melody ensure the music never fully settles. In ‘Aeolian Harp’, Cowell utilises the piano’s strings which are strummed and plucked to create a piece of naive intimacy and delicacy.

Solace by Scott Joplin draws on Cuban habanera and Argentine tango, as well as the African American Ragtime for which Joplin is best known. Not only does the work create a wistful interlude of calm and reflection, it is also a reminder of the diversity of America’s culture and its people.

IMG_9752Adam Swayne is masterful and convincing in this repertoire, bringing virtuosic swagger when required, tempered by sensitively shaped phrases and spare rubato. The emotions and memories aroused by the music are never far from the surface, but Swayne ensures the main message remains clear: this is music about remembrance, reflection and commemoration. Like his previous album, Speak To Me, Swayne has brought together a fascinating range composers and music whose fundamental messages will resonate with many people. This is his personal memorial to the terrible events of 9/11.

The album cover image is a print of a wire sculpture by Scottish artist Vanessa Lawrence called “Together”. Vanessa was undertaking an artist residency in the North Tower on 9/11 and witnessed the terrible events at close-hand.

9/11 : 20 is released on September 11, 2021 on the Coviello Contemporary label and via streaming services. Album launch and concert at London’s Wigmore Hall on 11th September.


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Adam Swayne

 

Adam Swayne’s career spans the roles of soloist, composer, conductor and teacher. He takes an inclusive and innovative approach to performance, putting communities at the heart of the music-making.

Adam is Deputy Head of Keyboard Studies at the RNCM and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He studied as a Fulbright Scholar with Ursula Oppens at Northwestern University in Chicago between 2003 and 2006. He has been fascinated by America and American music ever since.

Adam’s first CD for Coviello, (speak to me), featured American political music ranging from Amy Beth Kirsten to Rzewski, was selected as an Instrumental Monthly Choice by BBC Music Magazine, and received two nominations at the 2019 Opus Klassik awards in Germany.

Adam is concerned with the importance of music in commemoration. In 2012 he organised concerts for the centenary of the Titanic disaster, including a performance of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic in Southampton’s Guildhall on the exact anniversary of the tragedy.


Track list for ‘9/11:20’:

  • Karen Walwyn: Reflections on 9/11 (Nos. 3+6)
  • Henry Cowell: The Tides of Manaunaun, Fabric + Aeolian Harp
  • Kevin Malone: Sudden Memorials
  • Scott Joplin: Solace
  • David Del Tredici: Missing Towers

This recent release by Duncan Honeybourne on the EMR label makes a persuasive and highly listenable case for lesser-known English composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Recorded in August 2020 at Potton Hall, between lockdowns, as it were, Duncan Honeybourne, by his own admission, feels this is his best work to date. While many of us chafed at the enforced isolation and restrictions, Honeybourne has used the time extremely productively (he has also just released a recording of piano music by the late John Joubert – more here). Freed from a busy concert schedule, Honeybourne has welcomed the opportunity to “reconnect” with the piano and really immerse himself in the repertoire he most enjoys and loves.

A champion of lesser-known English piano music, Honeybourne’s affection for and understanding of the pieces on this disc is evident throughout in performances which reveal an acute appreciation of the wide variety of styles, moods and textures of this repertoire. The result is a generous 2-disc album which contains no less than eight world premiere recordings of works by Christopher Edmunds, Edgar Bainton, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, and Richard Pantcheff.

The title of the disc is taken from Psalm 103 (“out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord“), appropriately for the three substantial piano sonatas which frame the complete programme – from Edmunds’ big boned, luxuriantly romantic piano sonata, composed in 1938, with its nods to Liszt and Rachmaninoff in both its scale and breadth of expression, to the Bridge sonata written in the aftermath of the First World War – a work of utter desolation which calls out for reconciliation and forgiveness in a world torn apart by conflict, and Richard Pantcheff’s Sonata of 2017, written for Duncan Honeybourne, which although divided by almost a century, shares the dark, brooding emotional bleakness of Bridge’s work. Honeybourne captures the intensity and range of sentiment in these three sonatas and does not shy away from bravura virtuosity in the first movement of the Edmunds Sonata, which opens the album with its vivid first statements offset in the middle movement by a melting tenderness and warmth.

These substantial, dramatic works are complemented and contextualised by shorter works, mostly pastoral in theme, poetic and rhapsodic in nature, and lyrically presented by Honeybourne. Hubert Parry’s delightful ‘Shulbrede Tunes’ are affectionate, sometimes wistful portraits of the composer’s family and their Sussex home; Bainton’s ‘Willows’ and ‘The Making of the Nightingale’ are contemporary with Bridge’s Sonata, tender and evocative pastoral pieces; while Pantcheff’s Nocturnus V: Wind oor die Branders evokes the wind on the waves in his native South Africa. Another nocturne,  Britten’s atmospheric ‘Night Piece’ portrays nighttime scurryings and chirrups.

Friendships and teacher-pupil relationships connect the selection of pieces on this album: Frank Bridge taught Benjamin Britten, who in his later years mentored Richard Pantcheff. Honeybourne studied Britten’s Night Piece with Dame Fanny Waterman, founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition, for which the nocturne was commissioned as a test piece.

This is engaging collection of distinctive and diverse piano music offers listeners the opportunity to explore some stunning, lesser-known gems of the repertoire

emr-cd070-71Of the recording, Honeybourne says: “It was a joy to devise this programme, featuring some masterpieces I’ve known for a long time and love dearly, alongside the stunning Pantcheff Sonata, which I premiered in 2019 in London at an English Music Festival concert. It is a special privilege to present the recorded premieres of some terrific pieces that have languished in manuscript for many decades, and I hope listeners will get as much pleasure from hearing these wonderful gems as I have from all the excavation and preparation. It’s a great honour to bring them all together on this release.”

De Clamavi Profundis is released on the EM Records label.

Recommended


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.

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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

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