Tag Archives: CD review

If you listen to one thing this week……

Two things, in fact…..

The first is Renée Reznek‘s new disc From My Beloved Country: New South African Piano Music, which features works by Neo Muyanga, Kevin Volans, Michael Blake, Rob Fokkens, Hendrik Hofmeyr, Peter Klatzow, David Earl and David Kosviner. Some of the works were commissioned by Reznek, including ‘Hade Tata’ (Neo Muyanga, 2013), composed in honour of Nelson Mandela. It opens with a haunting 4- note dirge motif which provides the theme for this programmatic piece whose title translates as “sorry, father”. Written as a tribute to Mandela on the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the music is suffused traditional Sesotho and Zulu music with Ethiopian melismatic style, jazz and western classical music idioms. It celebrates Mandela’s childhood, his release from prison, and the weight of expectations placed upon him following his release to create a new South Africa.

Kevin Volans’ ‘PMB Impromptu’ (2014) was written “as a little tribute to Renee Reznek’s amazing fingerwork”. It appears to reference the minimalism of composers such as Reich and Adams, but it also pays homage to Debussy in a reworked passage from l’Isle Joyeuse, and Sindling’s ‘Rustle of Spring’. Reznek’s clarity and tonal colour really brings this music to life.

Volans’ ‘A Garden of Forking Paths’ is taken from his Progressively Prickly Piano Pieces, part of a graded series for players of all ages. Here, tonal control and sensitive use of the piano’s resonance create a piece whose meditative mood contrasts perfectly with the previous work.

Two works by Michael Blake from his six-volume cycle Afrikosmos reference Eastern Cape uhadi music, and the connection between this and Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, much of which draws on the folk music of his homeland. Meanwhile, Rob Fokkens’ ‘Five Miniatures’ also explores South African music, but in a concentrated form. These pieces offer ‘micro-studies’ in melody, rhythm, tonal palette and texture.

Partita Africana (Hendrik Hofmeyer) is one of the longer works on the disc. Darker in character, it merges the Baroque prelude and fugue with elements found in African music, including the pentatonic scale, repetitive melodic elements and irregular pulse. It’s an imposing work which evokes the vastness of the African plains.

Peter Klatzow’s ‘Barcarolle (Arnold Schoneberg in Venice)’ is a moody, atmospheric work which commemorates Schoenberg’s visit to Venice in 1925, and the piece includes motifs from the second of his Three Piano Pieces op 11. Reznek highlights the music’s inherent lyricism with a warm sound and sensitive pacing.

‘Song Without Words’ (David Earl) has a personal association for Reznek – it was composed as a wedding present for her daughter and was played during her wedding ceremony. It has the charm and lyricism of a song without words by Mendelssohn, with hymn-like elements in keeping with the ceremony. Earl’s ‘Barcarolle’ was also written in celebration of a family event: commissioned by Reznek on the occasion of her daughter’s engagement, the piece owes something to late Liszt in its haunting, rolling motifs and dramatic climaxes before the music settles into more peaceful waters. These works are played with great warmth and affection by Reznek.

The final work on the disc is ‘Mbira Melody’ (David Kosvner) which celebrates the African “thumb piano”, a instrument consisting of a wooden board with staggered metal keys, which are plucked with the thumbs. Redolent of Volan’s ‘PMB Impromptu’, it is also minimalist in style with its repeating figures and perpetuum mobile character. It ends with a witty chord.

This varied and imaginative collection of piano music reflects the influence of Western European music on South African composers, while also paying homage to the folk music and vernacular of the country. Reznek’s very personal affinity with the highly varied musical idioms presented in this collection is clear from the warmth and ease which is evident throughout, yet she is alert to the myriad moods and characters of each piece, creating an album which is both refreshing and revelatory.

Recommended.

From My Beloved Country is available on the Prima Facie label

https://soundcloud.com/ascrecords/renee-reznek?in=ascrecords/sets/prima-facie-records

5060113443885Scottish pianist Christopher Guild‘s second volume of piano music by Ronald Stevenson could equally be subtitled “From My Beloved Country….”. Although born in Blackburn in Lancashire, Stevenson’s father was a Scot, and the composer settled in the Scottish Border village of West Linton, south of Edinburgh. Scotland proved to be one of the profoundest influences on his life, and this album attests to that: it contains music directly influenced by or drawn from Scottish landscape, heritage and culture, together with works inspired by his creative friendships with other musicians. The album also contains several premiere recordings, including ‘Three Scots Fairy Tales’ which reveal Stevenson’s concern to create attractive and enjoyable music for young piano students. Christopher Guild responds to this by playing the pieces not as simplistic children’s music but instead brings great charm to these miniatures, highlighting their musical sophistication – for example, ‘What the Fairy Harper Told Me’ has Debussyan idioms and offers practise in the use of the sustaining pedal over rolled chords, as well as developing a sweet tone.

The most substantial work on the disc is ‘A Carlyle Suite’ (1995), written to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Thomas Carlyle. It’s a hommage to Carlyle from different viewpoints, and not only those which look directly at Carlyle himself. The second movement, for example, portrays an imaginary recital between Chopin and Jane Carlyle in Chelsea in 1848. Motifs and fragments drawn from Chopin’s mazurkas and a Valse Triste, all presented in a Bel Canto style, mingle with allusions to distinctly Scottish idioms. The seven movements of ‘A Carlyle Suite’ which follow are a ‘Study in historical styles on Frederick the Great’s theme’ (used to J S Bach in the ‘Musical Offering’), a set of variations which explore different musical devices and styles, from a French Baroque Overture (Var. 1) to a variation which evokes Debussy’s tonally ambiguous soundworld (the uninformed listener could easily mistake this for Debussy’s own music) with its whole tone scales and piquant, colourful harmonies.

One of the premiere recordings on the disc is of ‘Rory Dall Morison’s Harp Book’ (1978), a group of eight pieces which Stevenson transcribed from the harp book of the blind harper, Rory Dall Morison (c.1676-c.1714), who was born on the isle of Skye. Stevenson brings striking harmonisations and textures, and a simple poignancy to these simple folk melodies, and Christopher Guild’s crisp articulation and attention to detail evoke the sound of a harp, while his warm cantabile sound reminds us that these pieces are undeniably piano works.

The disc opens with ‘Hebridean Seascape’, Stevenson’s skillful reworking of the slow movement of Frank Merrick’s second piano concerto. It’s an evocative work, Lisztian in its scale and virtuosity, with rich orchestral sonorities, swelling melodies and fleeting birdsong, but also imbued with Scottish musical vernacular (the middle section references a Skye fisherwoman’s chant).

Just as on his first disc of Stevenson’s music, Christopher Guild brings a keen sensitivity to the music’s varying idioms and moods – from sprightly dances to the spacious romance of the Hebridean Seascape, there is much to enjoy from Guild’s assured touch and colourful soundworld. Recorded at Turner Sims Hall in Southampton, the piano tone is bright with a warm, rounded bass which really suits this music. Comprehensive liners notes by Christopher Guild accompany the disc, which include touching reminiscences of his meetings with Stevenson. And if you choose to purchase the album as a download, Toccata Classics have helpfully included a download of the liner notes on their website.

Recommended

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music, volume two – Christopher Guild, piano

Toccata Classics, Catalogue No: TOCC0388
EAN/UPC: 5060113443885

 

 

 

 

If you listen to one thing this week…..


Our times maybe troubled, deeply troubled, but thank goodness we can still gain pleasure and solace from music – and Daniel Grimwood‘s recently-released disc of piano music by Adolph von Henselt offers over an hour of unalloyed bliss.

If you didn’t know the name of the composer beforehand – and many may not – the opening notes of the first track might have you confidently exclaiming “oh it’s Chopin!”. There’s the same ominous tread in the opening as Chopin’s Op 49 Fantasie. And then you might think “it’s Liszt!” on hearing the tumbling virtuosic passages which sparkle under the lightness and precision of Daniel Grimwood’s touch.

Other works recall the bittersweet lyricism of Schubert or look forward to the richer textures of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But this is Adolph Von Henselt, a little known Bavarian-born composer whom Grimwood champions.

Organised in the manner of an old-fashioned recital disc, there is much to savour and enjoy in the variety of works explored here. Virtuosic concert pieces sit comfortably alongside elegant miniatures, offering the listener a broad flavour of Henselt’s style and oeuvre. The Nocturnes, Impromptus and Études prove Henselt was every bit a master of these genres as his contemporaries Chopin and Liszt – and he made similar technical and interpretative demands on the pianist too. There are passages of vertiginous virtuosity which appear sweeping and effortless rather than merely showy with Daniel’s acute sense of the scale and pacing of this music. It’s lushly expressive but Daniel’s clarity and delicacy means it is never cloying or too heavily perfumed.

This disc would go into my “lateral listening” recommendations: if you love Chopin, I guarantee you’ll love Henselt just as much.

This is the second of Daniel’s recordings for the Edition Peters label and it has delightful cover artwork by Janet Lynch and comprehensive liner notes. As Daniel himself says of this disc: “It’s my small way of restoring Henselt…..to his rightful place in the repertoire

Highly recommended

A Land So Luminous

cra-dykweaasda4

A Land So Luminous – music by Richard Causton and Kenneth Hesketh, performed by The Continuum Ensemble under the direction of conductor Philip Headlam with outstanding soloists including soprano Mary Bevan, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, pianist Douglas Finch, flautist Lisa Nelsen and cellist Joseph Spooner.

The disc features work for large ensemble, duos, trios and music for solo flute, cello and piano. Kenneth Hesketh and Richard Causton are amongst the foremost British composers of their generations, and ‘A Land So Luminous’ showcases their distinct compositional voices and musical craftsmanship, from Hesketh’s piquant, light-filled textures to Causton’s inventiveness and imagination. The music on the disc is diverse and atmospheric, and draws inspiration from an eclectic catalogue of sources, including Heinrich Hoffman’s 19th cautionary tales for children, Der Struwwelpeter (‘Shock-Headed Peter’), the poetry of Marina Tsvetayeva, Fats Waller, shamanic ritual and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K. 622. The title track ‘A Land So Luminous’ takes its name from a piece by writing by 17th century French philosopher-poet Cyrano de Bergerac.

All the works on the disc reveal strong musical gestures and means of expression. Hesketh’s works are expansive, visual and colourful: in Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher (‘Don’t Suck Your Thumb’) clarinet and piano dart and weave in a playful yet faintly grotesque dance; while in the second ‘Netsuke’ long sustained sounds emerge overlaid by a wistful clarinet melody gradually build to an unsettling climax. Causton’s ‘Threnody’ is a haunting setting of the English translation of a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva. The piece relies on the musicians being sensitive about their roles, resulting in a work of concentrated poignancy. Mary Bevan’s crystalline yet highly expressive voice is complemented by elegaic clarinets and a delicate piano part. In ‘Sleep’, a work for unaccompanied solo flute inspired by a poem called ‘Mythistorema’ by George Seferis, Causton creates an unsettling aural image of sleep, beset by frequent changes in time signature and tempo. Lisa Nelsen, on flute, displays control and sensitivity in her performance. The night-time theme continues in ‘Night Piece’ for solo piano, based on the clarinet line from the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and performed by Douglas Finch, who brings a delicate clarity and tenderness to this dreamlike work.

Recommended

Release by Prima Facie Records

Meet the Artist…… interview with Kenneth Hesketh

Inner Landscapes – Douglas Finch

“Listening to music, for me, is like inhabiting a landscape – an inner world, bounded by an intricate web of feelings, memories, expectations and associations that are brought to life through the properties of sound and rhythm” – Douglas Finch

inner_landscapes_cdcoverInner Landscapes, the first ever recording of composer and pianist Douglas Finch’s piano and chamber music, is a compelling collection of ten works which capture an ‘inner world’ of a particular landscape – in Canada, Germany, North Wales and New York. Finch was drawn to the art of Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871-1945), who has long been one of his favourite painters, in particular for her landscape paintings of the west coast of British Columbia which evoke feelings of “loneliness and quiet rapture”, and his music explores similar themes of solitude, mourning and spiritual longing.

Performed by Canadian flautist Lisa Nelsen, pianist Aleksander Szram, cellist Caroline Szram, and violinists Mieko Kanno and Toby Tramaseur, the music spans Finch’s compositional output from his early 20s, when he lived in Canada, to the present, after he moved to the UK in 1993. A renowned improviser, most of the pieces on this debut CD grew out of ideas resulting from his improvisations.

I recently heard British pianist Steven Osborne perform music by Morton Feldman, and I was immediately struck by a similar stillness and sense of time suspended in Douglas Finch’s music, with its carefully chosen and exquisitely placed sounds, delicate droplets of notes, plangent bass interjections and haunting melodic fragments. The piano’s resonance and decay is used to great effect – elusive and meditative in Ruins (1984) ‘Calm’, or declamatory and insistent in ‘Quick March’. In the last movement of Ruins, Finch takes the circling fragment from ‘Die Krähe’ from Schubert’s Winterreise to create his own Winter’s journey – a piece inspired by a gloomy day walking around an old castle on the Rhine, whose spare instrumentation and spooling melodies reflect the desolation of Schubert’s winter traveler. Other pieces on the disc have some kind of relation to a particular place: ‘Fantasy on a Russian Folk Song’ emerged out of the North Wales coastal town of Pwllheli – “practically the whole of the wildly ecstatic final section came to me while walking on the beach during a fierce gale” (DF). I am familiar with this part of North Wales, having holidayed there frequently as a child, and for me the music expresses the rugged, landscape, long empty beaches and changeable weather.

The three ‘Chorales’ on the disc reference the Lutheran Chorale tradition of J S Bach and Cesar Franck, and utilise the piano’s unique nuance and decay. Fragmentary, terse, and introspective, they express in their briefness a profound sense of contemplation, solitude and lamentation. It is the restraint in this music that makes it particularly arresting.

The launch of Inner Landscapes is on Monday 20 June at The Forge, Camden. Drinks from 7pm, performance at 7.30 to include selections from the CD and improvisations by Douglas Finch. Further information and tickets

Inner Landscapes is available from Prima Facie Records. CD notes by Douglas Finch and Aleksander Szram

Meet the Artist……Douglas Finch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Donohoe: Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Vol III

50fb9b63faf24b079dabd5a6bbbcf0c2Piano Sonata No. 6 in A, Op. 82 (1940)
Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat, Op. 83 (1942)
Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat, Op. 84 (1944)

Peter Donohoe, piano

Peter Donohoe’s third volume of Piano Sonatas by Sergei Prokofiev completes the cycle with Nos. 6, 7 and 8. Peter has a long association with the piano music of Prokofiev – the Sonata No 6 was part of his silver medal-winning programme at the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition – and indeed the composer’s homeland, as a regular visitor to Russia throughout his career (his diary from his stay in then Soviet Moscow during the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition is a fascinating read).

Prokofiev composed piano sonatas throughout his life and the final three belong together in the same way as the final three piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. Though the works were not intended to be performed consecutively, they do exhibit “familiar” attributes which connect them. For Peter Donohoe, these sonatas form one of the great cycles in piano literature, written by a composer who was also a magnificent pianist (surviving recordings of Prokofiev playing his own works are testament to this). This final instalment of Donohoe’s recording for Somm includes what are called the “war trilogy” piano sonatas, written during World War II, and reflecting on and reacting to the horrors of Soviet Russia’s titanic struggle against Hitler.

The sixth sonata opens with a clangorous motif which rings out before the music retreats into darker passage work and a second subject with folksong qualities. Donohoe’s pacing, acute rhythmic vitality and colourful dynamic palette combined with a glorious sound (evident throughout the recording) allows the music to build gradually to a climactic reprise of the open motif. Donohoe brings a wry humour to the second movement, a rather jaunty march, interrupted by a tense and sinuous middle section, but the ominous tread is never far away. The third movement is an elegant and rather poignant waltz, and like the preceding movement the middle section contains more unsettling material. There is a lovely clarity of line here which brings an expansive romantic sweep to the movement. The finale, all frenetic scurryings and mocking themes, is a fine example of Donohoe’s effortless fluency and technical control.

The Sonata No. 7 is the most popular of the three, and its menacing, militaristic tread is evident from the opening. Donohoe’s restraint in the quieter, middle section hints at impending drama as the frenetic energy builds. Although scored in a major key, there is nothing joyous about this music. The middle movement, marked Andante caloroso, contains a consoling cantabile melody as beautiful as any nineteenth-century salon piece, but once again the mood is disturbed by plangent bass chords and an overriding sense of melancholy. There is power here, in Donohoe’s rich fortes, but his sense of restraint creates an extraordinary tension despite the hushed conclusion. The perpetuum mobile finale crackles with energy, subtly phrased and crisply articulated, it is both triumphant and unsettling.

Like the previous sonata, No. 8 is also scored in B flat. Composed in 1944, it is the longest of Prokofiev’s nine piano sonatas and is a work of great breadth and emotional tension. Again, it is Donohoe’s ability to hold back rather than push the dynamics which creates a greater sense of drama, tension and impending tragedy. The middle movement opens with a lyrical Schubertian melody over an accompaniment which grows more florid. This feels like the calm before the final tempest and Donohoe’s sensitive line and delicate touch creates passages of great charm and beauty. The finale begins with a hectic motif which is both playful and heroic.

There is a wonderful immediacy to Donohoe’s playing combined with vibrant pianistic colour, sprightly articulation, technical assuredness and musical authority which runs through every note. An impressive conclusion to the cycle.

Available on the Somm label

Horae (pro clara) – Kenneth Hesketh

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

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

download-3
Clare Hammond (photo: Julie Kim)
Clare says of Ken’s music that “it can seem overwhelming at times, yet if one engages with its textural intricacy, the scope of his extra-musical allusions, and volatile virtuosity, rich rewards lie in store”. Clare seems ideally suited to this type of repertoire. Her debut album, Piano Polytych, containing works by Kenneth Hesketh, Julian Anderson, Piers Hellawell, Giles Swayne and Philip Grange, revealed her to be a fine advocate for contemporary piano repertoire, combining flawless technique with a sharp intellect and musical sensitivity to bring such works to life with colour, vibrancy and rhythmic precision, and totally without the self-consciousness or affectation that sometimes accompanies performances of this type of repertoire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band

scriabin_ragtime_300x300The curious, often sensual and hypnotic soundworld of Alexander Scriabin is viewed through the lens of a three-piece jazz ensemble in the David Gordon Trio’s new album Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band. Released at the close of the year marking the centenary of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s death, the album is a witty and imaginative take on Scriabin’s music, part reinterpretation, part hommage to the many elements and influences which make up this composer’s unusual oeuvre.

In an earlier article for this site, written on the anniversary of Scriabin’s death, David Gordon describes the many motifs and idioms from jazz which are also present in Scriabin’s music. He also highlights the other music which was being created over in America and Western Europe at the same time, from Irving Berlin to Claude Debussy. Thus the album contains tracks which reference these composers too, from the entertaining ‘Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band’ (track 2) which directly references Berlin’s ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. In ‘Cakewalk’ there is a groovy hint of Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Children’s Corner, a reminder that Debussy fell under the spell of a new kind of music emerging from America. ‘Famous Etude’ turns Scriabin’s Op 8, No. 12 into a sensual tango which segues into a samba, David Gordon weaving a hypnotic piano improvisation over silky cymbal and drums.

In an way, the opening track is the most interesting. Scriabin’s original Prelude op. 74 no. 2  becomes Praeludium Mysterium, a trippy number with spooky, Schoenberg-like dissonance which tells us as much about the strange soundworld and musical personality of Alexander Scriabin as it does about the David Gordon Trio’s ability to create something striking and new out of what is normally defined as “classical” music. The result is a wonderfully weird fusion. The ensuing tracks are arrangements, mostly by the Trio’s pianist, David Gordon, and like the opening track, they are not just “jazzed up” classics. The music exploits Scriabin’s penchant for dissonance and innovation and hints at what Scriabin might have composed had he lived longer.

Throughout, David Gordon’s piano sound is bright, yet warm, with sparing, sensitive rubato, a clear sense of phrasing and rhythmic vitality in the upbeat numbers. He is complemented by bass player Jonty Fisher and drummer Paul Cavaciuti. The Trio are adept at switching seamlessly between styles, and the whole album works as one might experience a set or two in a jazz club, or enjoy individual tracks as the mood takes you.

Mister Sam Records SAMCD004

CD review: Ronald Stevenson Piano Music Volume 1 – a Celtic Album

The Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson died in March 2015. He was one of the most important composers of our time, a composer-pianist in the grand tradition of Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov, probably best remembered for his monumental Passcaglia on DSCH. Pianist Christopher Guild’s first volume of Stevenson’s piano music was released on the Toccata Classics label in early March 2015, though I suspect Guild did not realise at the time that his recording would become a kind of memorial for Stevenson. The CD celebrates Stevenson’s shorter works for piano with a special focus on one of his major preoccupations: his love of Scottish and Celtic culture. The album contains three suites of pieces based on Scottish folk songs or songs for children, together with the more substantial A Scottish Triptych, three pieces each written some time apart, and A Rosary of Variations on Sean O’Riada’s Irish Folk Mass (1980).

The piano is the ideal instrument for miniatures, and Christopher Guild brings warmth, intimacy and wistfulness to the pieces based on Scottish folk tunes with his assured lightness of touch, sensitive voicing, clean articulation, rhythmic vitality and a keen sense of the fleeting moods and characters of each piece, and Stevenson’s penchant for complex harmonies and unexpectedly vivid dissonances. Meanwhile, A Scottish Triptych explores more plangent piano sonorities in its opening movement, and even utilises the piano’s interior (strummed and plucked strings) to produce unexpected colours and resonances in the final movement.

Christopher Guild is an enthusiastic advocate of Stevenson’s music, and the CD provides a poignant memorial to the composer. I look forward to Volume 2 with interest.

Recommended.

Meet the Artist……Christopher Guild

Toccata Classics

CD review: ‘Etude’ by Clare Hammond, piano

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

CD Review: ‘The Transcendentalist’ – Ivan Ilic

The word “transcendental”, at least when applied to piano music, usually suggests rampant virtuosity and piano pyrotechnics, and the first pieces which come to mind are Lizst’s Études d’exécution transcendante. Liszt himself chose the word to allude to the extreme difficulty of the pieces, the implication being that the musician who masters these works will be able to “transcend” their technique, musicianship and the expressive capabilities of the instrument.

In Ivan Ilic’s hands, the word “transcendental” has a different meaning. His new disc, ‘The Transcendentalist’, draws inspiration from  Transcendentalism, America’s first indigenous intellectual community, which included literary luminaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson’s manifesto Nature (1836) laid out the philosophy of the movement, which was founded as a reaction to and against rationalism and materialism. The music included on Ilic’s new disc is by  Scriabin, John Cage and Morton Feldman, together with a new work by Scott Wollschleger, ‘Music Without Metaphor’. The composers have connections to the tenets of the Transcendentalist movement: Scriabin’s mysticism, Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, Feldman’s intuitive approach to composing and Wollschleger’s synaesthesia, and the works on this disc display virtuosity in their originality and thoughtfulness, contemplation and introspection, rather than showy technical prowess

The works by Cage, Feldman and Wollschleger demonstrate the influence of Scriabin on American avant-garde composers, while Wollschleger’s deeply haunting  ‘Music Without Metaphor’ subtly reflects on and refracts the other music on the disc. Scriabin’s miniatures reveal hints of Chopin in the early Preludes while the later works are exotic and ambiguous, rich in pre-Shoenbergian atonality and unusual and arresting harmonies.

Ilic’s touch is assured, sensitive and as thoughtful as the music, his sound rounded, the pedal used tastefully to create halos of blurred sound, particularly affecting in Cage’s ‘In a Landscape’. The entire disc is contemplative, dreamy and genuinely spiritual. Play this at the end of a busy day, with the lights turned low, and surrender to the music and Ilic’s subtle delivery.

Recommended

‘The Transcendentalist’ is available on the Heresy label and as a download from iTunes and Amazon.

Ivan Ilic will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview