Clare Hammond has a reputation for delivering imaginative, adventurous and engaging programmes of predominantly twentieth century and contemporary music.
Hammond’s latest release, just out on the BIS label, is no exception, offering an eclectic selection of Variations composed by Karol Szymanowski, Helmut Lachenmann, Harrison Birtwistle, John Adams, Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith and Sofia Gubaidulina.
Here is a fascinating programme that shines a light on concert music that is too rarely heard, while also providing a vehicle for Hammond’s astonishing pianism and musicianship. It’s one of the most compelling recordings I’ve heard in a while, and an easy choice for Pianodao Recording of the Month…
Transcending the Form
Hammond introduces her new recording with a detailed booklet note that begins,
“The concept of variation form is a simple one. Grove Music describes it as a ‘form founded on repetition … in which a discrete theme is repeated several or many times with various modifications’. Superficially this may not sound particularly inspiring, yet the ways in which composers have responded to its apparent limitations are legion.
For this programme I have selected sets of variations that transcend the form in myriad creative, and at times daring, ways. In their range of emotion, from humour to contemplation, triumph to searing grief, these variations show that a composer need not be limited in expression by the restrictions of form.”
That selection is as follows:
- Szymanowski: Variations on a Polish Theme Op.10
- Lachenmann: 5 Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert (1956)
- Birtwistle: Variations from the Golden Mountain (2014)
- Adams: I Still Play (2017)
- Copland: Piano Variations (1930)
- Hindemith: Variations (1936)
- Gubaidulina: Chaconne (1963)
Stylistically the disc certainly offers plenty of variety, both of approach and musical language.
The opening Szymanowski is the earliest work, the most substantial in length, and that most rooted in the Post-Romantic virtuoso tradition. Like much of the music composed in the first decade of the twentieth century, this youthful work is as replete with ripe chromaticism as it is resplendent in its dazzling technical élan.
At the same time the nationalism and folk melody reveal its composer to be working in a similar direction to Bartók at that time, whose Kossuth appeared the previous year, and whose (similarly undervalued) Rhapsody for Piano was composed at around the same time.
With Helmut Lachenmann’s Five Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert, we appear at first to arrive in a more innocent landscape, the eloquent charm of Schubert’s Écossaise D 643 theme one of the album’s brightest moments. The five variations that follow are a compositional tour de force, revealing their composer’s considerable mastery of stylistic variety, historic sensibility and instrumental timbre, as well as (not least!) his sense of good humour.
A miniature mosaic of sparkling (and occasionally darker) musical moments, Lachenmann’s piece quickly established itself as my personal favourite here.
If Lachenmann’s variations have a somewhat skittish air to them, how much more do Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain, which meander between playfulness and austerity with little warning. The most ardently atonal piece on the album, the engaging hook here is in the way the enlivening range of sonorities and durations fixes our attention.
John Adams has apparently characterised his I Still Play as “Satie meets Bill Evans”, and we might unpack that by pointing to the way in which this music combines a simplicity of texture (Satie) with deliciously meandering harmonic inflections (Evans). Here, the “various modifications” required by the form stay closer to the source material. The shortest piece included on the disc, it is both a delightful interlude and a memorable statement in its own right.
Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations of 1930 introduce a far darker hue. Rejected by the great pianist Walter Gieseking on the grounds of its “crude dissonances” and “severity of style”, the piece marks the beginning of a phase in Copland’ career where he explored an explicitly abstract style incorporating serial techniques. Hammond aptly describes this work as,
“…perhaps the most monolithic set of variations of the twentieth century.”
Austerity and dissonance also feature in the music of Paul Hindemith, the tonality ambiguous at best, and often more subversive; indeed, by the time of the 1936 Variations included here, Hindemith’s music had been banned in Germany by the Third Reich. Originally earmarked as the second movement of his first Piano Sonata, the Variations ultimately entered the repertoire as a work in their own right, and one of Hindemith’s best.
But it is the mighty Chaconne of Sofia Gubaidulina which strikes me as the most monumental piece of all in this recital. Eschewing the Baroque triple-time dance rhythm but retaining its ground bass aspect, Gubaidulina’s Chaconne builds an imposing edifice of rhetorical chords and virtuoso bravura above an eight-bar foundation. It’s a piece which demands strength from performer and listener alike!
Clare Hammond’s Recordings
With a discography that ranges from Mysliveček to Panufnik, from Lyapunov to Robert Saxton, Hammond is an established champion both of the newly composed and rediscovered.
Happily, her continuing quest for fresh masterworks combines intelligence with musicality, academic rigour with technical mastery. Much of the music included in this recording inhabits the highest stratosphere in terms of virtuosic demand and artistic intensity, which Hammond seemingly meets with ease and enthusiasm.
Hammond’s technical precision and intellectual authority as a performer of avant garde piano music brilliantly comes into play in the atonal works, most notably the Birtwistle; here she ably brings to life the many contours and flights of fancy that pepper this fascinating composition, while illuminating with clarity the composer’s mathematically informed variation of durations.
But Hammond’s playing is not all a matter of technical prowess, impressive though this is. In such an album of contrasting moods, styles and colours, her command of the emotional delivery is superb at every twist and turn.
Lyricism? check! Drama? check! Humour? check… it’s all here in abundance, Hammond responding with alacrity to every fresh emotional, psychological and spiritual demand these varied composers make.
The recording was made on a Steinway D at Potton Hall in Suffolk back in December 2019, produced and engineered by Thore Brinkmann.
The wide dynamic range that this music requires is admirably captured, and the piano sound has suitable presence. There are some minor tonal changes between tracks though, to my ears the Copland in particular not quite gelling, soundwise, with the others.
With music that sweeps from the intimate to the iconoclastic with seemingly exponential urgency, a programme that stuns, intrigues and delights in equal measure, and a performance that is second to none, Clara Hammond’s Variations can be welcomed as a very rare treasure.
Taken together, these works offer a unique narrative of the development of piano music through the twentieth century and beyond, viewed through the multifaceted prism of the variation form. Here we discover endless invention, with composers not always associated with the core piano repertoire each taking their equally illuminating turn in the spotlight. The results may well leave listeners breathless!
With repertoire that will take many listeners to new and not always pretty destinations, it’s fair to point out that Variations is often not the easiest of listens; this is certainly not a casual affair, and will not appeal to all.
But in my view it is as compelling as it is utterly essential.