It is a mark of the popularity of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the high calibre of the performers, that these hour-long recitals are regularly sold out. Indeed, when I arrived at the Wigmore to hear Steven Osborne in a programme of music by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, there was a long queue of people waiting for returns. I relinquished my spare ticket (concert companion was indisposed) so that someone else could enjoy Osborne’s superb pianistic mastery and sensitive musicality. The theme of the concert was pictures: Mussorgsky’s popular and evergreen Pictures at an Exhibition preceded by a selection of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux from the lesser-known Op.33.

Read my full review

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega

 

Listen to the concert on BBC iPplayer

Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux – an earlier article on the Opus 33

Pianist Clare Hammond (photo Julie Kim)

The piano study or ‘Étude’ has long engaged and challenged pianists, and the practice of writing etudes to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano etudes has continued into the modern area with composers such as Ligeti, Cage and Kapustin.

On her new disc for BIS, British pianist Clare Hammond explores the Étude in works by Lyapunov, Szymanowski, Kapustin and Chin, a truly international line up of composers (Russia, Poland and South Korea). The imaginative programme combines some of the most electrifying and adventurous piano works of the 20th and 21st centuries, ranging from the impassioned late-Romanticism of Sergei Lyapunov to the jazz-inspired rhythms of Nicolai Kapustin and the mercurial, post-Debussyan soundworld of Unsuk Chin. For Clare Hammond the choice of works on this disc represents some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and  the opportunity to explore what the piano is truly capable of. All the Études on the disc fulfil the traditional criteria of the Étude (in the Chopinesque sense) of a piece which combines the excitement of technical and virtuosic display with expression, colour and compositional inventiveness.

This disc is not only a showcase for the variety and ingenuity of these composers,  but also a fine vehicle for Clare Hammond to demonstrate a sparkling technical sure-footedness, clarity of touch and musical sensitivity (particularly in the Études by Chin, which are, by Clare’s own admission, extremely difficult). The works by Chin are more closely aligned to Clare’s particular interest in lesser-known and contemporary piano repertoire, for which she has received much praise, and these virtuosic and playful études skip and dance across the keyboard with wit, colour and vitality.

Clare brings a richness to the works by Lyapunov with which the disc begins. They recall the soundworld of Rachmaninoff in their scale and textures, and are modelled directly on Liszt’s set of the same title (Études d’exécution transcendante).

Karol Szymanowski’s Twelve Etudes, Op 33 share Chin’s interest in pianistic colour, and are more closely related the Études of Debussy rather than his fellow countryman Chopin. Fleet and mercurial, Clare deftly captures their transitory moods and luminous colours, dancing rhythms and haunting sonorities, while handling their technical demands with aplomb.

Finally, Five Études in Different Intervals complete this fascinating survey of the enduring appeal of the piano etude. Composed by Nikolai Kapustin, they are characteristic of his output, fusing formal classical structures with idioms drawn from jazz, which Kapustin studied from the age of 16. Clare pulls them off with precision and wit, and an evident relish for this kind of writing for the piano.

‘Étude’ by Clare Hammond is available on BIS Records label and is available from all major online retailers. 

Creating the Definitive Recording – an article by Clare Hammond on the process and experience of creating Étude

A guest post by pianist Clare Hammond

 

As a child, I used to curl up on the floor in front of the imposing speakers of my grandfather’s sound system and work my way through his extensive collection of LPs. A lover of the core classical repertoire, he had little beyond Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but these composers were amply represented. While listening to Beethoven symphonies, piano sonatas by Mozart and Haydn’s string quartets, I imbibed a sense that these works were made permanent, somehow concrete, by their incarnation on disc. It seemed that these renditions were ‘definitive’, in a way that I didn’t feel when listening to live music. I hoped that one day, I too would be able to record ‘the’ Moonlight sonata and somehow set my interpretation in stone.

Despite this orthodox musical education, my specialisms now veer somewhat to the side of the mainstream repertoire and I find myself releasing a disc of études by composers from across the globe; two Russians (Sergei Lyapunov and Nikolai Kapustin), a Pole (Karol Szymanowski) and a South Korean (Unsuk Chin). These études represent some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and have given me the chance to really delve into what the piano is capable of (and, rather less pleasurably, where my limitations lie!)

I started preparing for this disc many months before the recording sessions. This was partly because the repertoire is extremely difficult technically, and also because this was a very personal project in which I had invested a great deal of emotional and creative energy. I have developed a reputation for playing works that lie at the more elaborate and frenetic end of the musical spectrum, so these études are essentially my ‘core’ repertoire, where I felt most at ease and most stimulated creatively.

I practised the pieces on different pianos, in varying acoustics, and performed them to different audiences, in order to explore the sonic options available to me. I listened to recordings of the études by other pianists, to orchestral repertoire by the composers, and read about their work in order to ‘live’ the pieces and make them my own. I had long abandoned the idea of a ‘definitive’ recording or interpretation, but I thought that I had a clear idea of what I, personally, wanted to achieve. At least, I did before I set foot in the studio…

The first few minutes in front of a microphone soon put a stop to any notions of creating my ‘ideal’ recording, although not in as devastating a way as you might expect. When recording, as in performance, you are suddenly faced with a single instrument which you may not have played before. In my case, at Potton Hall in Suffolk, I had a beautiful Steinway Model D which had been expertly regulated and tuned. However, all pianos have their foibles and if yours doesn’t have the bloom in the higher register that you had set your heart upon, or the percussive timbre that you sought in the bass, you have to find an alternative solution.

I had not anticipated how dramatically altered my physical state would be. I was nervous, though in a different way from live concert performance. We had a finite amount of time (5 days) to record two discs of challenging repertoire, these études and works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik. I wasn’t quite sure how far I could push myself, or for how long (8 hours per day before my wrists give up entirely…) as I’d never done anything this demanding before. The awareness of just how much effort both I and the wonderful team at BIS Records had put into assembling the project, and that my performance over the next few days could potentially undermine all of this, added an extra frisson of anxiety.

Fortunately, I was able to collaborate with producer Thore Brinkmann whose calm demeanour and consummate expertise made the whole process far easier and more enjoyable that I could have expected. We spent the first half hour warming up, with me at the piano and Thore at his desk altering the levels of the seven microphones poised some 12 feet off the ground in a semicircle around the piano. When I heard the first ‘playback’, I was astonished at the sound he had captured. It was so different from what I had heard at the piano. There was a clarity and a crystalline quality in some passages which had not been audible at ground level. Thus began my five-day guessing game where I made alterations at the keyboard whose result I could only hear minutes later in playback.

The specific character of one instrument, the resonance of an acoustic, or the choice of one brand of microphone, would seem to place limitations on the ‘ideal’ performance that I had in mind but, of course, in real life the most interesting results often come when you have to be most pragmatic. I started to respond to the situation and to find creative possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered. While I wouldn’t countenance incorporating the heady cry of a randy pheasant into a recording (and there was one point where I thought I would have to chase a number through the undergrowth away from the hall), certain effects were suggested by the depth of the sustaining pedal on the piano and, fancifully enough, by the vibrations of an aeroplane engine that had ruined a previous take.

It takes some time to fully appreciate that a recording is its own medium and most certainly not a convincing simulacrum of a live performance. For a start, there is no audience and the sense of reciprocal communication that you experience onstage is absent. Secondly, certain effects work much better on tape than they do in the hall. Why this should be, I do not know but there were a number of occasions where a take that I thought unusable, because of its vulgarity or my ineptitude, was by far the best in playback. While we tried to keep editing to a minimum, as with almost any recording, ours involved cutting and pasting tracks together to create a performance that never actually existed. Some may complain that ‘authenticity’ is lost but, again, this assumes that the aim of a recording is to recreate an ‘ideal’ performance for posterity. In reality, people listen to recordings very differently from a live performance and demand a greater level of accuracy and precision than a human being is capable of in one take. As a musician, knowing that if the next passage doesn’t go well you can always redo it, without having to jettison the performance up to that point, is enormously liberating. You are able to take risks that you would rarely contemplate in concert and that adds a vitality that is unique to the recording.

Fast forward nine months and I was able to hear the first edit of my Etude CD, around the time that the other disc, Reflections, of the music of Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik was released. This was a sufficiently long time that the pieces sounded ‘fresh’ to me and I was intrigued to hear what my family and friends thought of the recording. I was struck, as I am again now that the disc has been released, by how differently people listen to a piece. The concept of a ‘definitive’ performance is only meaningful if you can find a ‘definitive’ listener and, of course, both are a nonsense. Listeners bring their own experience, preferences and emotions to a recording and respond accordingly. While this might seem frustrating for the musician, it is actually an intriguing process and has certainly opened my ears to elements that I didn’t initially hear when performing in the studio.

If this is my experience as a pianist, how does the composer feel, compelled to translate their ideas into inadequate notation and submit them to the whims of a performer, and that’s before encountering the uncertainties of the recording studio? It’s important to remember that in order to be authentic, any art-form must be to some extent human and imperfect. The loss of control that one experiences, whether performing on stage or recording, can and should become an integral part of the creative experience. Learning to do this is difficult, and I can’t say that I have succeeded, but the process of becoming receptive to uncertainty is an extremely important part of anyone’s musical and artistic development. When I was younger, I felt that I should strive towards an abstract ‘perfection’ in music. The messy reality is far more interesting.

Clare’s new disc, ‘Etude’, has just been released by BIS Records and is available from all major online retailers. 

“unfaltering bravura and conviction”, Gramophone Magazine

“style and substance”, The Observer

“imagination and bravura”, The Sunday Times

Acclaimed as a pianist of “amazing power and panache” (The Telegraph), Clare Hammond is forging a reputation as an advocate of new and unfamiliar repertoire. In 2014, she gave debut performances at 7 festivals across Europe, including the ‘Chopin and his Europe Festival’ in Warsaw, and world premieres of works by 10 composers. Clare has now released two discs with BIS Records; Reflections, of works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik, and Etude, with études by Unsuk Chin, Sergei Lyapunov, Nikolai Kapustin and Karol Szymanowski.

More information is available at www.clarehammond.com/etude.html

Debussy updated for the modern age: Unsuk Chin’s Six Piano Etudes – guest post by Daniel Harding

Meet the Artist…….Clare Hammond

Who or what inspired you to take up a career in music?

As a teenager I was lucky to have Jeremy Carter as my piano teacher. I also revered the rock’n’roll pianism of Jerry Lee Lewis (and still do).

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I struggled during my first couple of years on the demanding joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM, but my third year was something of a revelation. I learnt reams during my piano lessons with John Gough (including, crucially, a fresh and non-stuffy approach) and also took composition lessons with John Casken and lectures in postmodern music from Kevin Malone and Shostakovich from David Fanning. It was at this point I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. Fulbright studies in the US with Ursula Oppens sealed the deal.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Juggling a range of disciplines and trying (hard!) to excel in all of them. Alongside piano I compose frequently for many varied ensembles (that, strangely, hardly ever include piano – for example this one) and I regularly conduct performances of (mainly) new music. My work with CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) is really important because it involves getting amazing people from all walks of life participating in the music, and I also serve on the board of the Riot Ensemble in order to get the most cutting-edge of this stuff out there in concert. I love teaching and am lucky to supervise over 80 groups of all styles and genres as part of my role as Head of Chamber Music at the University of Chichester, and I also have a clutch of brilliant and talented students at the Junior Royal Academy.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I played Rzewski’s colossal ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ in three venues last year, and I think I am proud to have scaled that particular pianistic mountain (although I haven’t been brave enough to listen to the recording yet!). I’m also pleased to have performed Lutoslawski’s terrific concerto – here’s a clip of the ending in my performance with the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra and Victor Yampolsky.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Probably pieces by Shostakovich. I relate well to nervous energy, tragedy…. and comedy!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Whatever I think will be fun to prepare and fun for people to listen to.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Hmm, tricky one. I like venues where it is easy to blur the boundaries between the performers and the listeners, so it’s more of a community experience. Maybe St Martin-in-the-Fields?

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Kevin Malone wrote me a wonderful and hilarious piece involving plenty of theatre called Count Me In. You can watch a performance here. I also love the sound of wind orchestras and have been lucky to have been involved in quite a few over the years. You can’t beat the Americans for their brass sound.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’d have to include Pierre Boulez – a great musical polymath with an amazing conducting style. You can see every single composerly detail in the gesture. My American conducting teachers (especially Mallory Thompson) taught me the importance of this. At other ends of the spectrum I love Eddie Cochran and The Who.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my first outing of Amy Beth Kirsten’s ‘Speak to Me’ in which I have to adopt the persona of two female goddesses as well as play some really imaginative piano music. (You can listen to a performance here.) I’m playing this again in a Riot Ensemble concert on January 30th.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Just to give 100% energy and commitment to whatever is being asked of you, however big, small or unusual.

What are you working on at the moment?

This morning, the John Ireland ‘Phantasie’ Trio. I play in a piano trio with Ellie Blackshaw (violin) and Peter Copley (cello) and we are on a mission to present all three of the Ireland trios. They are wonderful and really reek of Sussex, which is where I live.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Doing the same sorts of things, but with less anxiety about note learning/ preparedness.

What is your present state of mind?

Anxious about note learning/preparedness!

Adam Swayne works with a vast range of musical media and styles that go beyond conventional labelling. He is just as at home giving a solo piano recital or conducting an orchestra as he is organising musical installations in art galleries or composing for amateur ensembles. He takes an inclusive, informative and innovative approach to his music making that is drawing an increasingly large audience.

Adam is a graduate of the joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM. He gained first class degrees from both institutions, and an MMus from the RNCM. Manchester University gave Adam their highest award (Sir Thomas Beecham Medal) along with other prizes including the Recital Prize. Prizes from the RNCM included the John Ireland Prize and an award for performances of contemporary music.

In 2003 Adam was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to begin doctoral studies at Northwestern University, U.S.A. He graduated in 2006 with distinction, having presented several U.S. premières of works by British composers.

Adam is now Senior Lecturer and Head of Chamber Music at the University of Chichester and piano tutor at the Junior Royal Academy of Music.

Adam’s Swayne’s full biography can be found on his website:

www.adamswayne.com

(photo credit: Gareth Barton)
(photo credit: Gareth Barton)

Violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Nicola Eimer celebrate the 150th anniversaries of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen in a concert combining works for violin and piano by these two composers, together with new works by contemporary composers.

Alongside works by Sibelius and Nielsen, the duo will premiere a new set of five pieces composed on the footprint of Sibelius’s Five Pieces op.81 by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Alasdair Nicolson, Matthew Taylor, David Knotts and Anthony Powers.

Programme

Jean Sibelius: 4 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.115
Cheryl Frances-Hoad: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Alasdair Nicholson: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
David Knotts: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81knotts da
Matthew Taylor: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Anthony Powers: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Jean Sibelius: Sonatina in E for violin & piano, Op.80
Interval
Carl Nielsen: Violin Sonata No.2 in G, Op.35

The concert takes place on 4th February 2015 at the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Further information and tickets here

‘Fenella Humphreys responds to its elegiac reflection and technical display at top flight level’ (Orchestral Choice CD, 5* BBC Music Magazine)

‘Nicola Eimer is an outstanding artist’ (The Strad Magazine)

(Photo credit: Patrick Allen)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

My (non-musical) parents ran a seafront guesthouse and had an electric organ standing (unused) in the corner of the lounge. I’m an only-child and got nominated fairly early on to be the one who’d put it to use. (As a 5 year-old I suppose I couldn’t really argue.) I used to play Christmas carols and Richard Clayderman hits to the guests and haven’t looked back since.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I think it was Stravinsky who said “great artists steal”. Now, I’m not calling myself a great artist by any means, but I do empathise with that quote; I feel I’m constantly learning – or ‘stealing’, if you like – from other musicians. I guess we all do really; part of what ultimately defines our individual musical personalities is the process of choosing which bits of ‘stolen’ information we nurture and which bits we cast aside.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Deciding exactly what kind of career it is I want.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m (thankfully) quite fond of my last two CDs. The first – Bach to the Future – features a collection of solo pieces that have been particularly significant in my life and career to date. It was actually recorded just a couple of weeks after my daughter was born, so the fact I managed to produce something vaguely coherent is quite an achievement. More recently, my piano trio released its debut album. It’s called The Seafarer and includes a collaboration with Willard White and a brand new transcription of Debussy’s La Mer by Sally Beamish. It’s a project which took a tremendous amount of time and effort to realise, so it’s lovely to see it hit the shelves.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Ha – that’s a question which is probably best answered by others. I know what I enjoy playing, but musicians are often their own worst judges.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I love the process of developing repertoire-led ideas into fully-fledged projects that can be toured (and sometimes recorded) over a full season. They tend to be getting more eclectic and adventurous as I get older; I think I’m driving my poor agent mad.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

St. George’s in Bristol. It has the best acoustic of any chamber hall in the UK, a fine piano and – best of all – is within 30 minutes of my home. It means I can play a concert in a beautiful space and still be home in time for Match of the Day. That’s the ideal set-up as far as I’m concerned.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

In truth, I hardly ever listen to music these days unless I’m in the car, and then it’s either jazz (my choice) or nursery rhymes (my daughter’s choice). The Wass household is a strict no-music zone (piano practice aside).

Who are your favourite musicians?

Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Oscar Peterson. Oh, and I’d better say my trio [Trio Apache] partners – Matthew Trusler and Thomas Carroll – too. They’d kill me otherwise.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my Proms debut. Though that’s less because of the performance itself and more because I’d got engaged to my now-wife during the overture.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Variety. It’s essential, both to the maintenance of a career and to one’s musical well-being.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a big project with Matt Trusler for 2015 which involves commissioning 12 pieces from 12 different composers, plus a yet-to-be-written script, so that’s taking up a huge amount of time. It’s going to be awesome – watch this space.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Doing what I’m doing now, but with another ‘0’ added to my fees.

What is your most treasured possession?

Photos of my trek to Everest Base Camp. Not only because going there was a dream come true, but because it also reminds me that I was once relatively fit.

The Seafarer‘, Trio Apache’s debut album, featuring Sally Beamish’s transcription of Debussy’s La Mer alongside her original work, The Seafarer Trio (with Sir Willard White narrating), is now available on the Orchid Classics label.

Ashley Wass, began playing the piano at 5, and studied music at Chethams Music School from age 11. In his teens he studied on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, where his teachers included Christopher Elton and Hamish Milne. Wass later studied with Murray Perahia. He is the only British winner of the London International Piano Competition (1997), prize-winner at the Leeds Piano Competition, and a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.

Described as an ‘endlessly fascinating artist’, Ashley Wass is firmly established as one of the leading performers of his generation. Increasingly in demand on the international stage, he has performed at many of the world’s finest concert halls including Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Konzerthaus. He has performed as soloist with numerous leading ensembles, including all of the BBC orchestras, Philharmonia Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lille, Wiener Kammerorchester, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and under the baton of conductors such as Simon Rattle, Osmo Vanska, Donald Runnicles, Ilan Volkov and Vassily Sinaisky.

Ashley Wass’s full biography

www.ashleywass.com