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.

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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 

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

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

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

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

This week I was delighted to attend a concert to launch British pianist Richard Uttley’s new CD Ghosts and Mirrors. Richard is a passionate advocate of contemporary piano music, and this CD, his third, follows his previous recordings with its focus on contemporary and 20th-century music. In addition to works by Toru Takemitsu and Luciano Berio, the disc includes the first recordings of Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy and Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy which was written especially for Uttley and was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010.

Richard explains the title of his CD as “the works collected here [are] are reflection on something”, and the “ghosts” appear, in part, in memoriam to departed composers, namely Messiaen (Takemitsu/Rain Tree Sketch II and Murail/Cloches d’Adieu, et un Sourire). There are more metaphoric ghosts and reflections here too: Thomas Ades harks back to the Mazurkas of Chopin and Szymanowski in his Op. 27 Mazurkas, while Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy is a paraphrase on themes from Berg’s opera which charts the rise and horrific fall, ending in death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, of its eponymous heroine. In Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy, the work opens with a fragment of an “alberti bass”, an eighteenth-century musical device in which chords are broken or arpeggiated to create continuous sound.

It can be hard to present a programme entirely comprising contemporary music in concerts (witness the BBC’s anxieties about this in its Proms broadcasts this year – more on this issue here) and some performers seek new ways to present contemporary programmes which challenge and excite the eyes as well as the ears. Thus, Richard Uttley, was joined onstage by Nat Urazmetova, a visual artist, who created the artwork for the CD, and who designed and mixed live visuals as Richard played. These were not a simple “accompaniment” to the music, but rather had been designed to reflect not only the mood and characteristics of the pieces performed (a selection from the CD), but also textures, colours, dynamics and articulation. From trembling, pulsing sea anemones to a dizzying, plane’s eye view of London at night, the frenetic rhythm of a weaving machine to an unsettling tour of a ruined Gothic church, these visuals enhanced and informed the music, without detracting it from it. Perhaps the most powerful was the film which accompanied the Lulu Fantasy, suggesting the horrible fate of the protagonist through shuddering black and white images, hinting at sexual depravity and violence.

It was evident throughout the performance that Richard really enjoys the challenges, both musical and technical, of playing this kind of repertoire. His total immersion in and understanding of this music produced a performance that was entirely convincing, and, more importantly, extremely absorbing.  A pristine sound, clean articulation and broad dynamic range combined to create one of the most exciting concerts of contemporary music I have attended. I was pleased to find even more to delight and intrigue in the CD, which is also elegantly designed with copious and intelligent liner notes by Richard, with contributions from the composer’s themselves.

Recommended.

‘Ghosts and Mirrors’ is available on the ARC label

www.richarduttley.com