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.

On record: The Waldegrave Ensemble – Matthew Taylor: Chamber Music Vol.3 – Music for Winds (Toccata)

Taylor Chamber Music, Volume Three: Music for Winds

The Waldegrave Ensemble and friends

Introduction and Capriccio op.7 (1990)
Trio in memoriam VH op.21 (1997/2018)
Serenata Trionfale op.34 (2005)
Wind Quintet op.51 (2014-15)
Skål! (2004)

Toccata Classics TOCC0486 [54’16”]

Producer/Engineer Michael Whight
Recorded July 20-21 at Trinity United Reformed Church, Wimbledon; Trio recorded March 3 2018 at St Barnabas, Mitcham

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc from Toccata Classics of Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) focussing on his not inconsiderable output for wind ensemble, played by musicians who have worked with this composer on numerous occasions and have a sure understanding of his unmistakable idiom.

What’s the music like?

Most substantial in actual content are the two pieces for wind octet. Among Taylor’s earliest acknowledged works, Introduction and Capriccio comprises an opening section that exudes an ominous expectancy, duly offset by the main section which, with its vaunting motion and ever more demonstrative exchanges, provides a succinct yet eventful showcase for what is still a largely untried medium. Any stylistic uncertainty has been ironed out by the time of Serenata Trionfale, a companion piece to Nielsen’s Serenata in vano and proffering a rather different scenario from its deadpan stoicism. Formally Taylor’s work unfolds in deceptively Classical fashion from the alluring harmonies and unforced motion of its initial Andante, via the impetuous exchanges (not a little Tippett-like) of its scherzo then the more nuanced and often speculative dialogue of its intermezzo, to a finale whose bewitching introduction from offstage oboe is succeeded by a Presto which drives forward to its suitably uproarious close – the taciturn protagonist having in this instance been purposefully and successfully wooed.

Mention of Nielsen is a reminder his Wind Quintet remains unequalled in this genre. Taylor plays oblique tribute to in with Skål!, a jeux d’esprit that coincidentally offers a masterclass in how to fit the maximum allusions to Nielsen’s six symphonies into a minimal time-span (that to the First Symphony might well take some spotting). Only recently has Taylor essayed a Wind Quintet, and here the underlying model is not Nielsen but Malcolm Arnold. Its seven short movements play continuously – beginning with a lively Preludio festivo then taking in a skittish Hornpipe and Pensive Waltz with more than a hint of wistfulness; followed by a teasing Habanera and energetic Tarantella, before a Pastorale evinces the most searching and soulful music prior to an Epilogue which brings the whole work infectiously full circle.

That leaves the Trio in memoriam VH for flute, violin and cello, a typically individual tribute to the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-96). The opening movements are both marked Allegretto, with the elegant interplay and often reticent expression of the former (pointedly marked ‘innocente’) finding potent contrast in the playful manner of its successor; the work closing with a Moderato whose plangent musing draws on timbral shadings of real poise and finesse. Taylor’s commemoration results in the deepest and most eloquent music on this disc.

Does it all work?

Yes. Taylor has an instinctive feel for wind instruments (not surprising given he played the oboe during his formative years), evident throughout those works featured here – idiomatic and innovative despite (or even because of?) the absence of ‘advanced’ playing techniques.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances by the Waldegrave Ensemble and associated musicians do full justice to this music’s distinctive qualities, abetted by a recording that affords clarity without undue closeness of perspective. Taylor himself provides the informative and amusing booklet notes.

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

Matthew Taylor’s composer website can be found here, while for more on the Waldegrave Ensemble click here

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:

On record: Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann – Rodney Newton: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata)

Newton Orchestral Music, Volume One – Symphony no.1; Symphony no.4 ‘Distant Nebulae’

Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Newton
Symphony no.1 (1969)
Symphony no.4 (1975)
Distant Nebulae (1979)

Toccata Classics TOCC0459 [70’29”]

Producer/Engineer Albert Moraleda
Recorded September 18-22 at Sala Beethoven, Sala de Ensayos de Carranque, Málaga

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The ever-enterprising Toccata Classics begins another series, devoted to the orchestral output of Rodney Newton (b1945) who, best known for his brass band and film music, has been no less active in the concert domain, with 14 symphonies to date and numerous other pieces.

What’s the music like?

We begin at the start of this symphonic output, with the Symphony no.1 that Newton completed in 1969. He suggests Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams as primary influences, though that of Malcolm Arnold (then the leading British symphonist of the younger generation) is also detectable in the livelier episodes of the opening movement and a finale alternating between jazzy incisiveness and high-flown eloquence. Best, though, is the central Lento – its serenity increasingly undermined by more troubled elements on the way to a radiant close. Had this symphony appeared a decade or so before, it might well have found favour at a Cheltenham Festival of the period; heard today, its wide-eyed naivety – in terms of expression while not technique – appears more a resolute statement of intent for where its composer was headed.

One instance is the Symphony no.4 of 1975, its more forward-looking idiom underpinned by an adept recourse to serial technique and a continuous variation at its most resourceful in the opening Metamorphosis whose seamless and cumulative momentum readily confirms   a symphonist of conviction. There follows an Elegy of overt if not unrelieved sombreness, then a Scherzo malevolo dominated by suitably strident material and climaxing in a ‘break’ for kit-percussion such as leads into the finale. This Passacaglia, Variations and Epilogue builds stealthily, with increasing allusions to earlier ideas, to a powerful culmination whose impact resonates throughout the raptly inward concluding bars. Had Sir Charles Groves been able to secure its premiere, Newton’s symphonic profile would surely have been far greater.

The disc is rounded off by Distant Nebulae (1979), which received two semi-professional performances before this recording. Although inspired by the ‘cosmic landscape’ of Ives’s The Unanswered Question, its interplay of chorale-like melody and modal harmony suggests more Copland and even Barber; the music evoking that ‘’gentle meditation on the night sky and the mysteries of the universe’’, of which the composer speaks, in suitably pensive terms. Just maybe this could be Newton’s means of finding favour with a non-specialist audience?

Does it all work?

Very largely. That the First Symphony is a ‘starting out’ piece does not lesson its undoubted appeal, and it clearly commended itself to the Málaga Philharmonic players who render it with relish. The Fourth presents tougher challenges which are not entirely surmounted here (notably in the extensive outer movements), but this is not to question the commitment of these musicians – presided over by the dependable Paul Mann, whose service to present-day British symphonism (at least as represented by Toccata Classics!) could hardly be gainsaid.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is spacious and well-focussed (if just a touch overbearing at climaxes), while Newton contributes an informative and personable booklet note. As with Steve Elcock and Matthew Taylor, one looks forward to further symphonic odysseys 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:

On record: Eve Daniell, Roderick Williams & Simon Lepper – John Pickard: Songs (Toccata)

John Pickard Songs Eve Daniell (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)

Pickard
The Borders of Sleep
Binyon Songs
The Phoenix

Toccata Classics TOCC0413 [61’01’’] English texts included
Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded January 7th and 8th 2017 at St George’s, Bristol

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc of music by John Pickard (b1963) from Toccata Classics, this time focussing on his output for voice and piano which to date comprises just three works, though these are no less personal than his more extensive contributions to the orchestral and chamber genres.

What’s the music like?

In his booklet notes, Pickard speaks of the difficulty in finding the right words for music thus intended. His works featuring baritone evince due discernment in those poets he has set. Not least the Binyon Songs – five settings of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the ubiquity of whose For the Fallen has detracted from a large and varied corpus. The present sequence is nothing if not representative – conveying abused benevolence in Nature, re-emergence in Sowing Seed and hectic transition in Autumn Song. The warm confessional of When all the world is hidden (a likely counterpart to Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit?) makes for a telling foil to the relatively expansive The Burning of the Leaves, affording closure through its insight into the immutable process of decay and renewal – an apotheosis as probing as it is profound.

Whereas the Binyon songs are a loosely related sequence, The Borders of Sleep is a song-cycle in formal intent and expressive scope. Here the texts are by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), considered a ‘wat poet’ (he died at Arras) though one whose poetry tends toward the speculative and even oblique. These concerns are pursued across the course of nine songs – taking in such as the sombre monotony of The Mill-Water, black irony of The Gallows and impermanence of Rain. The final settings comprise a fitting culmination: the mood of Last Poem, made concrete by its alternate title The sorrow of true love, transmuted into the fatalistic calm of Lights Out whose initial line also provides the title of this work and whose intimation of transcendence through the release of sleep affords its own benediction.

In contrast, the earliest piece here sets the earliest text, The Phoenix freely adapted from R. K. Gordon’s translation of a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. In fining down the expansive original (677 lines), Pickard has created a scena for soprano and piano where the evocation of this mythical bird’s demise and rebirth becomes metaphor for change and renewal; hence aligning it with the more recent poets featured here then, by extension, the underlying concerns to be found in even the most abstract among Pickard’s compositions.

Does it all work?

Very much so – not least when the performances are so attuned to the spirit and sensibility of Pickard’s music. A stalwart of English-song repertoire, Roderick Williams invests the Binyon and Thomas settings with unsparing emotional acuity, and if Eve Daniell experiences passing difficulty with pitching and intonation, her command of high-flown rhetoric in The Phoenix leaves no doubt as to her identity with this piece. Simon Lepper’s accompaniment is of the highest order, while recorded sound judges balance between voice and piano to perfection.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and Pickard will hopefully add to his output for voice and piano in due course. In the meantime, acquire this disc and check out the composer’s orchestrations of his Binyon songs (also performed by Williams) on the English Music Records’ anthology Now Comes Beauty.

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, while for more on John Pickard, you can visit his website here