On record: Clare Hammond – Robert Saxton: Piano Music (Toccata Classics)

Saxton Piano Music

Clare Hammond

Saxton
Hortus Musicae, Books One (2013) and Two (2015)
Chacony for the Left Hand (1988)
Sonata (1981)
Lullaby for Rosa (2016)

Toccata Classics TOCC0458 [55’44”]

Producer / EngineerMichael Ponder
Recorded21 & 22 August 2017 at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A disc collating most of the solo piano output by Robert Saxton (b1953) in performances by Clare Hammond, who has championed his work over recent years and is the dedicatee of two books of shorter pieces comprising Saxton’s most significant music for this instrument so far.

What’s the music like?

Saxton came of age as a composer during the early 1980s, with such pieces as the Sonata for Piano. This was completed in 1981, the centenary of Bartók’s birth and the pivoting of whose mature piano music between stasis and dynamism is evident in the present work’s methodical unfolding towards a coruscating climax; rounded off by a limpid if by no means valedictory chorale. Hammond has the measure of this compact yet eventful piece, not least its unforced and resourceful tonal follow-through as subsequently became a hallmark of Saxton’s thinking.

Such is audible in the Chacony for Piano Left Hand composed in 1988 for Leon Fleischer. Its antecedents in archetypal examples by Purcell and Bach are never hard to detect, but Saxton ‘personalizes’ this form through a tonal framework that facilitates its evolution as a sequence of interrelated variations – as defined harmonically as it is seamless texturally. Concerning the latter aspect, Saxton notes that he was at pains to ensure his music sounded as though written for two hands – a quality that is audibly to the fore in Hammond’s admirably fluent reading.

Both these pieces have been previously recorded, but the two volumes of Hortus Musicae are new to disc and evince piano writing no less idiomatic and arguably more personal than before. The inspiration is that of a ‘musical garden’ in all its allegorical and metaphysical implications, with the five pieces which comprise the First Book (2013) embodying this in ingenious ways – not least the stealthy (Andrew Marvell-inspired) floral clock of Hortus Temporis, or synthesis of formal precision and expressive eloquence in Hortus Infinitatis.

The seven pieces of the Second Book (2015) are even more diverse and contrasted in and between themselves. Here, too, the inspiration is often more concrete – hence the invoking of fondly remembered music in Beech Bank (á la recherche)…, or deft play on meanings which motivates the heady course of Hortus Animae Alis Fugacis; a concluding piece in every sense. The fact these 12 pieces outline a circular tonal trajectory makes further books unlikely, but Saxton will hopefully find a means of extending the sequence up to 24 pieces.

Does it all work?

Indeed. Saxton has long been a composer able to fuse serial and tonal elements without the results seeming at all contrived or inhibited. The two books of Hortus Musicae abound in evocative and arresting musical imagery which Hammond conveys as convincingly as she realizes the not inconsiderable technical challenges. The disc is rounded off by Lullaby for Rosa (2016), a minute-long ‘welcome gift’ for this pianist’s daughter and a further instance of how deftly Saxton integrates technical ingenuity within a context of limpid wistfulness.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The piano sound is spacious in balance as well as realistic in tone, while the composer contributes an entertaining booklet note that takes in an overview of his ancestry and formative years. Hopefully there will be further releases of his music from this source.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below: