Variations on a Polish Theme
Five Variations on a Theme of Schubert
Variations from The Golden Mountain
I Still Play
Clare Hammond Piano
I am always lost in admiration for Clare Hammond’s playing. She seems to have invincible fingers and can tackle anything a composer throws at her.
Indeed she goes out of her way to take on the most severe technical and intellectual challenges. Most of all, she is determined to show the qualities in cerebral pieces that have slipped from mainstream repertoire precisely because of the demands they make on pianist and listener alike.
A good example is Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations of 1930, an uncompromising work that never gained the popularity of the rest of his music, before or after, and with a certain amount of good reason. It is tough stuff and, remarkably, feels completely related to Birtwistle’s 2014 Variations from The Golden Mountain, though Birtwistle was not born until four years after Copland wrote it.
The longest work on this disc is the Szymanowski and it is one of the few, along with John Adams’ recent (2017) I Still Play and Sofia Gubaidulina’s increasingly complex Chaconne, that are likely to be listened to for pleasure rather than the exercise of the little grey cells. I admit that Hindemith’s music has always been one of my blind spots, so my opinion of the music, as opposed to the playing, is irrelevant.
Helmut Lachenmann, a year younger than Birtwistle, is included with a set that is far more of a pianistic showpiece than his contemporary’s and much easier on the ear, though easy only in the context of this album. There is something reminiscent of whichever artist it was who said that drawing was just taking a line for a walk.
Any two of these works would provide substantial and rewarding sustenance in a concert programme and they are best listened to with that level of concentration and separation. Heard all together they do bring on mental indigestion. There is much to respect, rather less to relish. Art does not need to be entertainment but there is a certain didactic puritanism about much of this music that does not appeal – but that is a matter of taste not quality. For Hammond’s committed performance of it the composers still around to hear it should be truly grateful. They will not find a more thorough interpreter.