Talking Heads: Clare Hammond

Clare Hammond talks to Arcana about her upcoming world premiere performance in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall of Kenneth Hesketh’s new Piano Concerto, and new disc of music by Mysliveček.

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

The premiere of a piano concerto remains a special event, even in a form that has been in existence for at least three hundred years. Pianist Clare Hammond currently has interest in both ends of that evolutionary spectrum, for in the first quarter of 2019 she gives the premiere of a brand new Piano Concerto, by Kenneth Hesketh – but also releases a new disc of little-known works for keyboard by 18th century Czech composer Josef Myslivecek, including two piano concertos.

Arcana took the opportunity to talk with Clare about these exciting developments, beginning with Kenneth Hesketh’s new work, due to premiere this Friday! His concerto has the intriguing title Uncoiling The River, which perhaps unwittingly is depicted in visual form by the river of paper required for the piece and posted on Twitter by Hammond recently:

Clare has no doubt on which way her latest encounter with Hesketh’s music is likely to head. “It’s going to be absolutely brilliant”, she enthuses. “It’s a mammoth piece from list of… Lots more to do than just play the notes on the piano. New influences, incredibly complex. Rich work on all fronts.” It is the latest in an extremely productive meeting of creative minds. “We met in 2010, and since then we have worked together a lot,” she explains. “Ken has talked about writing a concerto for some time, and pitched it to the BBC and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. We managed to get things together, and he wrote it once we had the commission.”

It was not the first time Hesketh has written for Hammond, with a complete solo piano disc entitled horae (pro Clara) released on BIS last year. “The horae is a 40-minute solo piece written for me, and it uses extended techniques,” she explains. “Ken’s style of writing is often very complex and dense, and it has a lot of mechanical energy. I feel quite natural with it although it takes ages to learn the notes.”

How long did it take to learn the concerto? “To get up to speed, to the state of working with an orchestra, takes about three weeks”, she says. “I like to blitz things! I’m much quicker than I used to be, and I have methods. I have new ways of marking up scores, in my own different colours, I found it really helps and I have funny ways of managing music, with the page turning especially.”

Uncoiling The River, while dedicated to Clare, has a meaningful dedication to her second daughter, one-year old Emme. “It’s particularly personal as we’ve developed a close collaborative relationship. In the Piano Concerto we use a Kolam for Emme, which is a Hindu tradition passed on from mother to daughter. It is a geometric pattern made with coloured rice, and that is the point in the concerto where I use the bells – I have ten of them on a table next to me, and the Kolam dictates the way they are laid out. It’s a nice thing for Emme, and Ken’s also drawn a picture for her that she has in her room.”

Understandably Emme will not be at the premiere, which will take place in the BBC’s Hoddinott Hall at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. It will form the centrepiece of a concert marking the hall’s tenth anniversary, and judging from the opening page will feature a sizeable orchestra. “They are quite large forces,” confirms Hammond, “but Ken uses every element in a very imaginative way. It’s a completely unified piece of writing. We don’t rehearse with the orchestra until two days before the concert, but I’ve heard a MIDI version in Sibelius that replicates the sonorities, which is really helpful.”

I ask Clare about the stylistic innovations she mentions in the piece. “It is a very tense and complex piece. I’m assured the orchestral parts aren’t too complicated but sometimes he has a very different sonority in mind. One of the main influences on his sound was the time he spent as a choirboy in Liverpool Cathedral, and how he heard the music from where he was singing. The sonorities he heard in the cathedral mean it wouldn’t necessarily be crystal clear, but he uses that to the advantage of the overall sound and it’s in force here. It has informed a lot of his work over the years, too, to play with the sound in an architectural sense.”

Hesketh is not the only composer with whom Hammond enjoys a strong creative bond. Her recent disc of piano works by Robert Saxton garnered critical acclaim (not least on Arcana). “That was a lovely disc to make, because he is another composer with whom I have a good relationship over a long period of time. Over half the disc is music written for me so it is a really personal piece of work. It finishes with a lullaby for Rose my older daughter. He ‘met’ her when she was 2 months old, and since it was released it’s got an enormous number of hits on Spotify thanks to being included in a number of playlists.”

She is keenly aware of the importance to combine working with living composers and playing much ‘older’ music, and highlights the mutual benefit of working this way. “For me it’s a really fulfilling way of doing things and exploring the repertoire. You’re continually pushing boundaries, both stylistically and personally. I think getting the composer’s feedback in real life is great too. Sometimes we deify the music that has lasted all this time from Mozart and Beethoven, say, and you have to touch it with kid gloves. The composers I’ve worked with are practical and pragmatic and know how to create the sounds that they want, and there’s not that stultifying approach at all.”

From Mozart’s time rather than Beethoven’s, Josef Mysliveček is a very intriguing figure to say the least. “He was friends with Mozart, and was the only composer that Mozart really respected”, says Hammond, “though sadly they became estranged because of his business with Mozart’s father Leopold”. It is tempting to thing Mysliveček would be considered for reappraisal because of his colourful past (he was known as Il Boemo (The Bohemian) but as Hammond explains it is his music that does the talking.

“Mysliveček’s music has a certain freshness and a vitality to it, and although now we are used to complex textures and outlandish harmonies, this was all very exciting in his time. It’s a new thing for me – and if he is completely new to you as a composer I would recommend you start off with his Wind Octets:”

For her new disc of Mysliveček Keyboard Concertos and solo works, due for release on BIS Records in March, Hammond worked with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. It is another example of a rich and varied career of collaborations, typified by a recent audiovisual project Ghosts And Whispers. It is described on her website as ‘an unbroken sequence of fragments, last thoughts, elegies and absences by Schubert, Mozart, Wagner, Janáček, Stravinsky, Jacquet de la Guerre and Schumann, inter-leaved with movements from John Woolrich’s Pianobook.’

Her enthusiasm for the project matches that for her work Hesketh and Mysliveček. “I want to continue with it, as it’s been really interesting. Initially John Woolrich got in touch with the Quay Brothers, who are stop-motion animators, and had the idea for this project. I don’t have much experience in this area, and working with living artists is really interesting. I only actually saw myself in it recently, and it was the first time I’ve heard it and seen it for the first time. The synchronisation informs the narrative of the film and that’s really exciting.”

This is not the only time Hammond has appeared on film, for she has a piano-playing role as a younger Miss Shepherd in the big screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van. “If the opportunity comes up again I would do it for sure,” she says. “That film was particularly lovely, and not just because I was working with people who are brilliant at their job but because they are really nice people. It came out the blue, from a friend of the composer assisting George Fenton, who wrote the soundtrack. They needed a young pianist with blue eyes, and they thought of me!”

Clare Hammond and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, will give the world premiere of Kenneth Hesketh’s Piano Concerto, Uncoiling the River, as part of a concert celebrating the 10th birthday of the Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff on Friday 25 January. The concert will be subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Details of her new, forthcoming disc of Mysliveček – due for release on BIS in March – can be found on Hammond’s website.