VARIATIONS / SZYMANOWSKI: Variations on a Polish Theme. LACHENMANN: 5 Variations on a Theme of Schubert. BIRTWISTLE: Variations from the Golden Mountain. ADAMS: I Still Play. COPLAND: Piano Variations. HINDEMITH: Variations. GUBAIDULINA: Chaconne / Clare Hammond, pno / Bis SACD-2493
British pianist Clare Hammond plays here a variety of piano variations by Polish, German, British, American and Russian composers of the 20th century. Four of these composers are still alive: Helmut Lachenmann, Harrison Birtwistle, John Adams and Sofia Gubaidulina.
We start with an early work written by Karol Szymanowski when he was only 22 years old. The style is more along the lines of the French impressionists; he had not yet discovered Scriabin, and Stravinsky was still on the horizon in 1904. The theme is also much more melodic than one has come to expect from this composer. Hammond presents a nice balance between lyricism and energy in her playing; her articulation is excellent, and everything flows naturally. The final “Allegro vivo” is especially impressive.
Lachenmann’s piece is a bit deceptive since it is based on Schubert’s Eccosaise D. 643, but immediately in the first variant we hear a much more modern approach to harmony, and in the second variation, though he reduces the tempo considerably, the harmony is even further removed from Schubert’s milieu. I found this to be a really fascinating piece, full of surprises and great imagination. Indeed, the music becomes slightly denser with each succeeding variation. The Birtwistle Variations from the Golden Mountain are equally modern in harmony, and here the composer uses space between the notes to create suspense.
By contrast, John Adams’ I Still Play is a relatively simple piece: simple in its choice of theme, simple in construction and simple in harmony. It’s nice, but scarcely on the same high level of the preceding works, though Hammond plays it well. According to the notes, Adams describes this piece as “Satie meets Bill Evans,” but to my ears the music is not very much like Satie and clearly lacks Evans’ swing.
I was, however, delighted to hear Hammond play Copland’s Piano Variations from 1930, when he was still an interesting modern composer and before he cribbed old American folk tunes to create his music. This is a nice, thorny piece, full of interesting dissonances and built around a four-note motif that isn’t quite a melody. I would even go so far as to say that this is the best piano work by Copland I’ve ever heard—it even has a touch of George Antheil in it—and Hammond plays it superbly.
By contrast, Paul Hindemith’s variations, originally the second movement of his first Piano Sonata, is almost conservative in style for this very severe modern composer, and Hammond infuses it with a welcome lyricism.
The final work on this disc, Sofia Gubaidulina’s 1956 Chaconne, is one of the most severe pieces I’ve ever heard written for piano. Its spiky, edgy harmonies simply do not allow for comfortable listening at any point in the piece, though if one divorces the top line from the chords one will find that it is fairly lyrical except for the bitonal middle section. The music is also quite baroque in the classic sense of the word, meaning ornate, in its virtuosic development. By the 3:25 mark, we are clearly in very complex and virtuosic territory, far removed from the 18th-century concept of a chaconne. Hammond tears into it with astounding energy and perfect balance between her two hands. It is a genuine tour-de-force.
Except for the Adams piece, this is an extremely interesting album, one that holds your interest from first note to last. Brava, Clare!
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)