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 & 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 & flares. Read more

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5:4 at HCMF 2012 – Nicolas Hodges

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My HCMF 2012 experience began at midday today in St Paul’s Hall, with Nicolas Hodges’ lunchtime recital featuring piano music by Jean Barraqué. It’s rare, but marvellous, when a concert can be genuinely eye-opening, & everything about this recital was just that. Before the concert, i knew very little of Barraqué’s music, & as Hodges progressed through the first few pieces—Intermezzo, Pièce pour piano, Thème et variations (Retour was sadly omitted from the programme)—a distinct first impression began to take shape: enigmatic, mysterious, aloof, music realised through a sequence of loosely but unmistakably inter-connected melodic intentions that, despite being diffused through wide intervallic displacement, somehow hold together. They brought a very different composer to mind: Morton Feldman, due both to the meticulous way notes were placed after each other, as well as the striking way Barraqué grabs hold of one’s perception of time; despite the brevity of these pieces, their ability to make time malleable was impressive.

But only now did one’s eyes start to become truly opened. Following a (retrospectively somewhat dramatic) moment off stage, Hodges returned to deliver the Deux morceaux pour piano, the first of which undid practically every assumption one had made through the preceding works. Here, without any warning, was absolute fire, erupting in an unstoppable, bewildering cascade of splintered thought, Hodges’ fingers flying over the entire range of the keyboard at almost ludicrous speed. What, now, to make of Barraqué? True, the second of the morceaux displays the same cool reserve heard before, but the first was a genuine & overwhelming shock, as though something quietly benign had against all expectation exploded into raw power, like a monastic act of self-immolation.

This graduated approach to the language of Barraqué felt almost pedagogical (in the best sense), presenting a primer of sorts so as to create a context for what came next, his epic 40-minute Sonata, completed in 1952. On the one hand, this meant it felt stylistically familiar, yet the experience of hearing these diverse elements rigorously explored at length entirely transformed one’s understanding of them. For one thing, the Sonata is a very much more difficult listen, inasmuch as the demands it makes feel considerable (another Feldman similarity), & i’ll happily confess to a number of occasions when i didn’t so much feel ‘lost’ as simply stupefied at the fearlessly inexplicable way Barraqué moves between the work’s discrete strands. Yet for all its inscrutability, the best aspects of the miniature works are magnified to a huge degree, especially the oscillations between fast & slow tempi. If time felt malleable before, now it becomes entirely fluid, Hodges seemingly pulling time around at will, & on occasions stopping it altogether.

Understated throughout, almost meditative, Nicolas Hodges’ performance of this beguiling music was one of the most transparent i’ve ever seen, as though channelling directly Barraqué’s musical voice. United in performance, both composer & pianist were absolutely astonishing.

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Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) – Study No. 7

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Today is the 100th anniverary of the birth of North America’s most singularly unorthodox composer, Conlon Nancarrow. Born in Arkansas but spending most of his life in Mexico, Nancarrow’s legacy is dominated by the large number of studies he composed for the player piano. His compositional practice was a punctilious & painstaking one, establishing the rhythms & pitches of the piece & then slowly punching them as holes into the roll of piano paper—perhaps the earliest example of a composer using a ‘program’ to create instrumental music (interestingly, Nancarrow’s first such study dates from the late 1940s, the same time that computer programming was becoming a practical reality). Barely acknowledged until the last twenty years of his life, Nancarrow’s work eventually became recognised for what it is: a dazzling & entirely unique enigma, as well as the most thoroughgoing & fundamental re-evaluation & re-thinking of counterpoint since the time of J. S. Bach. Read more

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Proms 2012: Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Harrison Birtwistle – Gigue Machine (UK Premières) & Brian Elias – Electra Mourns (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Proms | 2 Comments

Last weekend’s Proms Matinee was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers & three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark. Read more

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