piano

HCMF 2019 (Part 2)

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It’s many, many years since i spent meaningful time in the company of music by Can, so i went to founder member Irmin Schmidt‘s HCMF piano recital last Thursday with precisely no expectations. What transpired was one of the most mesmerising, understated performances that i’ve ever witnessed in St Paul’s Hall. Though Schmidt was performing three works – derived in part from his album 5 Klavierstücke, released last year – they essentially coalesced such that they became three facets of a single train of thought. The innards of the instrument had been intricately prepared with an assortment of screws, rawlplugs and other gizmos, but this was a whole lot more than just a standard prepared piano. In the way Schmidt played, there was no qualitative difference between the prepared and natural notes – they all sounded as though they were an essential, intrinsic part of the piano’s tone of voice, so to speak, articulated with different kinds of timbre and pitch focus. Read more

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Jakob Ullmann – Fremde Zeit Addendum 5; Stefan Fraunberger – Quellgeister #3 Bussd

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i’ve been spending time lately with new releases from two composers towards whose work i’ve hitherto felt almost universally positive. There’s something a little nerve-racking about this, inducing anxiety – and, to an extent, incredulity – that the unfamiliar new will be able to live up to the marvellous old. That’s especially true in the case of Jakob Ullmann, for while i’ve been fascinated and engrossed in all of the discs of his music steadily put out by the ever-dependable Edition RZ label – in addition to occasional (but too few) performances of his work – i’ve nonetheless always found myself wondering what’s left to explore in Ullmann’s edge-of-audibility soundworld.

The latest disc of his music, Fremde Zeit Addendum 5, reveals that there’s actually quite a lot – though its nature is rather surprising. The album features a single hour-long work of Ullmann’s, Solo V for piano, though describing it as “for piano” doesn’t even begin to hint at the reality of what this piece does, or is. As with the other solo works released by Edition RZ, the piano is situated in a vast space, becoming a microscopic presence within a seemingly infinite macroscopic universe. This bears strong similarities to the way the bassoon is perceived in Müntzers stern (one of my best albums of last year), though there’s much less sense here of the solo instrument causing the environment to resonate. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: Investigations

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It’s not unusual, considering HCMF’s openness to stepping outside the bounds of convention, for a new work at the festival to have to overcome how extraordinary it is. That was certainly the case in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday afternoon, where Christian Marclay‘s Investigations received its world première. It wasn’t just that the piece had been hyped up beforehand, but the more simple fact that it’s not every day you get to see twenty pianos – two grands, 12 baby grands and six uprights – used in a composition. Even before the music had started, and for some time after, one had to overcome the mere spectacle of it. This very evidently could be felt among the audience, who took some time to progress from marvelling at the number of pianos and laughing at the unusual antics of the pianists, to settling down and starting to engage more meaningfully with the music.

The piece uses 100 photos of pianists in the act of performing as its ‘score’; this set of images is given to each of the twenty pianists who then need to interpret the photos and notate below the image their rendition of what’s happening. These 100 pages of ‘score’ are played through by each pianist independently; obviously, this allows for considerable variation in the work’s duration, and on this occasion it lasted around 50 minutes.

Marclay could hardly have titled the work better. From the outset it was clear that this was a lot more than just the sum of each individual pianists’ investigations (though it was that), being a much broader experiment investigating, among other things, the fundamental music-making progression from interpretation (of the score) to reproduction (performing it) to accumulation (combining with others). This last aspect was the most unexpected; while each pianist articulated their material independently, they nonetheless were intimately involved in each others’ performances, since a great many of the interpretations required two or more pianists in order to execute them. Regardless whether one focused on individual players or widened the scope to listen to assorted sub-groups or everyone, Investigations exposed the way that any creative act can be regarded as an agglomeration of small details, combining and coalescing to form larger shapes and structures. The primary way the piece did this was by being both an atomisation, constructed from a total of 2,000 individually perceptible musical moments (20 players x 100 images), and a distillation, each pianist seeking to present the essence of what is captured in each image – resulting in an overall emphasis on gesture as the fundamental musical building-block. (If a journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step, perhaps a composition of 2,000 ideas starts with a single gesture.) That’s not especially new or revelatory, of course, but the particular way it was teased out and manifested in Investigations was fascinating, reinforced further by the way the material petered out as each pianist finished, throwing yet more emphasis on the importance of each and every gesture. Read more

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Alexander Knaifel – Lukomoriye

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What is it that holds music together? How loosely can it be structured and/or organised, and at what point does its integrity irrevocably break down? When does intense earnestness become perceived as affectation? When does patience cease being a virtue and become a problem, even a handicap?

i found myself pondering all of these questions, and many more besides, as i’ve been spending time in the company of Lukomoriye, the most recent disc of music by Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, released by ECM. The nature of those questions indicates a problematic and perhaps ultimately negative listening experience, so i should stress at the outset that it wasn’t actually like that at all. Knaifel’s music was new to me, and for better or worse i’d forgotten the information from the press release that had whetted my appetite, so i hadn’t really known what to expect. In a nutshell, Lukomoriye is probably the strangest thing i’ve listened to this year, and possibly the most fascinating too.

In hindsight, it’s unexpectedly helpful that the accompanying booklet doesn’t go into the usual kind of detail about the compositional thinking behind the eight works on this disc. There are, in fact, no details at all apart from the texts associated with each piece, and one tiny but crucial nugget of information literally relegated to a footnote, which i’ll come back to shortly. To say that what one finds on Lukomoriye is music of extreme quietness would not exactly miss the point but could potentially be misleading. This is, without a doubt, very quiet music, but of a markedly different order than that inhabiting the work of, say, Jakob Ullmann or some of the Wandelweiser composers or the world of lowercase.

In some respects the opening work on the album, O Comforter, Knaifel’s 1995 choral setting of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, is different from the majority of what follows. There are no challenging issues of integrity or coherence here, the choir maintaining a consistent, unwavering solidity throughout (which in retrospect, for all its softness seems almost deafening compared to the other pieces). But behaviourally speaking the nature of the choir’s slow homophony is revealing: it’s almost as if each voice is waiting for someone else to move first rather than choosing to initiate movement themselves. This makes the work’s gradual chord progressions feel not simply painstaking, but almost painful. It communicates something that typifies this album as a whole: a sense of necessity – a burning need and/or desire to express these things – yet from a place so completely overwhelmed that the actual act of expression becomes agonisingly arduous. It’s as if the music were emerging from exposed nerve endings: excruciated music we might call it. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 2)

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One of the defining features of the Estonian Music Days is its openness to including decidedly unconventional concert situations. Last year’s Obscure Avenues, a two-hour experience during which we were blindfolded and led around to various performance spaces, remains among the most radical and memorable musical encounters i’ve ever experienced, and while the 2018 festival perhaps wisely didn’t attempt to top that, it had its fare share of surprises.

The opening night of the festival saw Flame Sounds, a short open-air performance from composer Liisa Hirsch with Australian fire artist Chris Blaze McCarthy. Surrounded by four microphones, Blaze acrobatically wielded a succession of implements – a mixture of bars and chains – that almost looked as if they’d been borrowed from Tallinn’s museum of mediaeval torture instruments, each one burning in a unique way. These were the basis for Blaze’s physical choreography, with Hirsch in turn capturing and processing the sounds into a network of billowing noise formations, projected out via four speakers surrounding where we were standing. Considering this was part of a music festival, it was a shame that the emphasis was almost entirely on Blaze’s actions rather than on Hirsch’s sonic results – Blaze abruptly moved on throughout, despite Hirsch’s music continuing – making for a frustrating, though visually exciting, performance. But what we experienced nonetheless made an interesting connection with the festival theme of ‘sacred’, elusive sounds emerging from the merest contact of fire and air. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 4)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Before i conclude my survey of the available recordings of Rebecca Saunders‘ music, i want to flag up some omissions. There are three works that i’m not able to discuss at this point as i haven’t yet got hold of copies of the discs on which they’re featured: rubricare (2005) which is on Harmonia Mundi’s About Baroque double album, as well as CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 (1995) and company (2008), included on the 1996 and 2008 Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik CDs. If and when i eventually obtain these discs, i’ll review them together at a later date. There’s also one other piece of hers that’s been released very recently, which i’ll be discussing in my final article in this Lent Series.

Saunders’ earliest acknowledged composition is Behind the Velvet Curtain, a work for trumpet, piano, harp and cello completed in 1992, available on a recording by – yet again – Ensemble Musikfabrik, as part of the Musik In Deutschland 1950–2000 series. There’s something sketch-like about the piece, almost a kind of testing of certain ideas – ideas that would turn out to have great significance in her work – in order to experiment with their behaviour and operation. The most obviously nascent idea exhibited by the piece is an emphasis on certain pitches, acting as roaming focal points which the four players continually follow and assemble around. There’s a playfulness about this, with each shift in the focus being initiated – ‘suggested’ might be a better word in most cases – by one of the players, becoming the basis for a short episode of varying clarity. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Michael Cutting – I AM A STRANGE LOOP V (World Première)

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In just five days’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival gets going. That’s a big deal anyway, but this is its 40th edition, so there’s even more cause than usual for celebration. As a warm-up, i’m going to spend this week revisiting a few of the more memorable pieces from the last few festivals. The recitals given by pianist Richard Uttley have been for me some of the most exciting HCMF concerts in recent years, always presenting a thoroughly unpredictable collection of works embracing both the lyrical and experimental aspects of the instrument (and of Uttley himself). At HCMF 2016, he gave the first performance of Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP V.

It’s the second piece Cutting has written for Uttley that involves the use of a Fender Rhodes piano. The first, This is Not a Faux Wood Keyboard (premièred by Uttley at HCMF 2015), captured and harnessed the piano’s actions through use of a loop pedal. For I AM A STRANGE LOOP V, this premise has been expanded by utilising a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines. In each of the work’s four movements, Uttley is required to record portions of his performance, which are then played back while additional material is played. In practice, the two tape machines become second and third instruments in their own right, leading to interesting and unpredictable passages of 2- and 3-part semi-recycled counterpoint. Read more

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Proms 2017: Julian Anderson – The Imaginary Museum (World Première)

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Last autumn, at the Royal Musical Association’s annual conference, composer Julian Anderson presented a paper addressing what he described as “the problem of professionals involved in modern music denigrating and otherwise attempting to devalue the music they are supposed to support”. The paper – which unfortunately i’ve not yet been able to read (anyone have a copy?) – was titled ‘Selling Ourselves Short: Inturned aggression and group self-contempt in the modern music sector since 1973’. As it happens, i was born in 1973, and while i doubt Anderson had myself in his sights, after i’ve written the following review, i suspect he may well do.

His new piano concerto, The Imaginary Museum, was given its world première at Wednesday’s Prom by Steven Osborne with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. Cast in six movements and lasting around 25 minutes, the piece is by far one of the most insubstantial and ineffectual bouts of professional noodling masquerading as music that i have ever encountered. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: Love Songs

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Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 3. Piano music

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It’s only a few days until Michael Finnissy‘s 70th birthday year comes to an end, so in the nick of time, here’s the final part of my retrospective of his music released by his most loyal label, Metier. In turning to the piano music, i’m conscious that, to some extent, i’m setting myself up for failure. The piano is of such massive, fundamental significance to Finnissy – his website lists 172 works for the instrument, more than half his entire output – that to engage with this music meaningfully would require many more thousands of words than i can devote to them on this occasion. By my own admission, then, never will a surface have been so barely scratched. But it doesn’t take much more than a scratch to start uncovering a wealth of inspirations – musical, philosophical, political, sexual, ideological, technical – teeming within these works to an extent that, even for Finnissy, is startlingly extensive. There is, initially at least, something overwhelmingly daunting about this, yet it would be a mistake to regard Finnissy’s piano output as so many multi-faceted puzzles that can only be ‘got’ once all of their extrinsic influences have been grasped, parsed and assimilated. Nothing, i would venture, could be further from the truth: without wishing to put words into the composer’s mouth, i have little doubt that the notion of his music as some kind of ‘test’ would be completely anathema to Finnissy. Besides, all of them – without fail – communicate themselves with an immediacy and power that sets them apart both within his own output as well as from the majority of 20th and 21st century piano-writing. They can be enjoyed at surface level and also in the rich, subterranean layers of inspiration that lie beneath. To me, Finnissy’s piano music seems not unlike a kind of archaeological artefact: the more one goes digging, the more unexpected delights are to be discovered.

Metier has released four albums of the piano works, which doesn’t sound like a lot but they nonetheless constitute over ten hours of music, including some of Finnissy’s most important works for the instrument. Released over a period of fifteen years, these releases successively grow in terms of both scope and duration. All but one of them are performed by arguably the composer’s most definitive interpreter, pianist Ian Pace. Read more

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Howard Skempton – Piano Concerto (World Première)

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Another interesting première from 2016, also performed at the Tectonics festival, also for piano and orchestra, also featuring John Tilbury as soloist, is Howard Skempton‘s Piano Concerto. This is a work that i’ve been more than usually interested to hear. In conversations throughout the last couple of years, Howard has talked about this piece with me on numerous occasions, though his marvellously inscrutable way of describing it meant that, beyond knowing there was a Stravinsky connection, and that 12-note ideas were not unimportant, the piece remained pretty much a mystery. In fact, it turns out the link to Stravinsky is a big one, organisationally: Skempton has modelled his concerto on Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra, both by structuring the work in five short movements and also by utilising virtually the same instrumentation (substituting a second bassoon for Stravinsky’s clarinet, adding a pair of horns and ditching the harp and celesta). Read more

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HCMF 2015 revisited: Naomi Pinnock – Lines and Spaces (World Première)

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There are just four days to go until the start of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and UK audiences get the chance–denied them at most other festivals on these shores—to experience some of today’s most experimental, radical and open-minded music-making. All being well i’ll be there for the duration once again, but in the meantime, as something of an appetite-whetter, i want to revisit something from last year’s festival.

Partly but not entirely due to the presence of Jürg Frey as composer-in-residence, HCMF 2015 was characterised by a distinct thread of simplicity and restraint, obtaining the maximum effect, power and overall use from relatively spare and at first glance potentially unpromising material. Of course, in such contexts as these words like ‘simplicity’ and ‘restraint’ become themselves redefined, to the point that a pianissimo note from Jacob Ullmann becomes shockingly outré, or a change of chord from Chiyoko Szlavnics feels as though the whole world has either been tilted on its side or stopped spinning on its axis.

Lines and Spaces by UK composer Naomi Pinnock occupies a not dissimilar place of compositional thought. Drawing on the minimal abstract art of Agnes Martin for inspiration, the piece, for solo piano, is made up of six short movements, the even-numbered of which correspond to the lines of the title. Simplicity of the kind i mentioned above reigns here, each ‘line’ located around an extended, repeated middle C (the relative speed of the repetition decreases across the three movements). The first is coloured by a single C an octave lower, the second by a D and B immediately above/below, followed by some pedal smudge. The third is struck with a glancing triadic blow that retains more than enough consonance to keep the ‘line’ stable until it too is smudged before fizzling out, its string muted. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Pierre Boulez – Piano Sonata No. 1

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“Vous êtes de la merde!”

i’m going to begin 2016 by looking back 70 years to the earliest acknowledged work by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated composers, Pierre Boulez. For much of his life, but particularly as a young composer, Boulez’s perceived demeanour was, to put it mildly, bellicose, and his approach to composition was rapid—an interesting fact in light of his later concern (some might say obsession) with revising his scores. These two aspects, his demeanour and his approach, came to a violent head in 1946, in the Paris apartment of Boulez’s teacher and mentor René Leibowitz, when Boulez turned up with the completed score of his first Piano Sonata, a work that Leibowitz had presumed would be worked on slowly under his supervision. Leibowitz’s disgruntled reaction involved taking the score—at the time bearing his name as dedicatee—and beginning to write on it in red pen; Boulez’s explosive response, prior to storming out, consisted of the five words above. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Morton Feldman – Piano Four Hands

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Not everything performed at HCMF is brand new, yet there are occasions when it feels as though one’s hearing a familiar piece for the first time. This happened last year with Morton Feldman‘s Piano Four Hands, a work that dates back over half a century, composed in 1958. One of a series of works experimenting with notation and interaction that Feldman composed during this period, it’s a piece that had hitherto left me entirely cold, a response that, having heard it in a variety of interpretations, i’d assumed must be something to do with Piano Four Hands itself. That belief was overturned on 25 November 2014, when Philip Thomas and John Tilbury began their afternoon concert with the piece, and finally everything coalesced. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Jan Erik Mikalsen – Too much of a good thing is wonderful (UK Première)

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One of the strongest impressions that Norwegian composer Jan Erik Mikalsen‘s Too much of a good thing is wonderful made on me last year was grandiosity, emanating from allusions to Liberace, of whom the piece is something of an affectionate (if somewhat wry) homage. Returning to the piece since, that impression has become more nuanced and amorphous, in its own way undergoing precisely the same kind of absorption into the work’s depths as Liberace’s own material does. Mikalsen sets up a mise-en-scène that sounds wholly aquatic, initially positioned at a vantage point, coolly observing surges like small tumbling waves at the shore. The qualities exhibited here, though, persist throughout, a distant kind of hesitance, pitches defracted through a quarter-tonal prism. Read more

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György Kurtág – …quasi una fantasia…

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It was many, many years ago (at the 1993 Meltdown Festival, in fact) that i first encountered the music of Romanian composer György Kurtág and became instantly entranced by it. Like Webern, Kurtág is drawn to expressing himself in tiny, fleeting musical acts for modestly-sized instrumental groupings, but unlike Webern there’s usually a powerful emotional current obviously flowing through them (that’s not to suggest Webern’s music isn’t emotional; Kurtág’s is simply more demonstrative). During the 1980s, he was commissioned to write a work for large forces for the Berlin Festival, which caused Kurtág difficulties that were only surmounted when he explored the Philharmonie’s chamber music hall, at the time still being built. This led to a realisation that he could preserve his outlook and approach by writing for a number of small groups spatially arranged around the hall; the result, premièred in October 1988, was …quasi una fantasia…, a small-scale concerto for piano and “instruments dispersed in space”.
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HCMF 2014 revisited: Howard Skempton – Oculus (World Première)

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One of the smallest works receiving their first performance at HCMF 2014 was Howard Skempton‘s two-minute Oculus, for solo piano. Despite such brevity, it’s a beguiling curiosity of a piece; indeed, ‘Skemptonian’ might be a good adjective for music that is weird, amusing and a bit baffling all in equal measure, as Oculus is. Which is not to say it’s incomprehensible; although Skempton speaks of using two major and minor chords (thereby employing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale – an oblique reference to the work’s dedicatee, Christian Wolff, a fan of Webern’s music), that seems from a listening perspective a bit of a red herring—or perhaps a MacGuffin. Read more

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Proms 2014: Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee (World Première), Zhou Long – Postures (European Première) & John Adams – Saxophone Concerto (UK Première)

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The latest round of Proms premières got one thinking about the relationship between expectation/innovation and engagement. It was Judith Weir‘s new work that got this particular ball rolling around the mind. A composer already at the less adventurous end of the new music spectrum, in recent years her music has increasingly seemed imaginatively torpid, practically treading water. Day Break Shadows Flee, composed for and premièred by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, went to essentially no lengths at all to challenge that assessment. Read more

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Proms 2013: Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto (World Première) & Gerald Barry – No other people. (UK Première)

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Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise and practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. and the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Six Piano Études

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It’s been quite a while since my articles on the Barbican’s 2011 Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin, but here’s an omission from that account, which was only broadcast recently. The day began with a piano recital given by Clare Hammond, featuring Chin’s Six Piano Études. It’s perhaps not surprising, considering Chin studied for several years with György Ligeti, that she should be drawn to the étude form, yet hers are very different both stylistically and collectively from those of her former teacher.

There’s a strong sense of unity running through the six pieces, even of continuity. Chin is drawn to filigree piano writing, which is present right from the start of ‘In C’; the diatonic progressions in the bass guide the étude rather than grounding it, the right hand sounding like streams of water magically cascading upwards. ‘Sequenzen’ begins at the other end of the keyboard, in a lugubrious preamble that swiftly gains momentum, a single pitch lingering within. Hectic passagework breaks out—the upper part filled with embellishment—only hesitating briefly in a moment of repose before launching into a torrential climax. One realises how closely-related these two études seem when the third begins; the tempo of ‘Scherzo ad libitum’ is all over the place, charging off unpredictably only to slow down again immediately afterwards, a juddering sense of motion that brings to mind the inscrutable mannerisms of Nancarrow’s player-piano studies. The étude ends in similar fashion, but its centre is a lengthy episode of unstoppable material, like a burning juggernaut, notes flying everywhere like sparks and flares. Read more

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