Category Archives: Now Hear This!

Music you should hear at least once…

Fugitive pieces: behind the tapestry of the Ghosts and Whispers project with Clare Hammond

Colyer-Fergusson Hall will host what promises to be a wonderfully atmospheric event at the end of this month, as pianist Clare Hammond brings a combination of music and film to the concert-hall as part of the Ghosts and Whispers tour.

The project, a combination of live piano pieces haunted by ideas of ‘fragments, last thoughts, elegies and absences’ and specially-commissioned film, embraces music by an eclectic range of composers; before the performance on Friday 27 May, The event beguils with its promise of immersing the listener in a world of illusions and shadows, interweaving works by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and others with piano miniatures by John Woolrich.

Intrigued at the notion, I caught up with Clare and asked her about some of the ideas behind the project…


Female pianist sat at a grand piano

How did you decide which composers’ repertoire to pull together ? It’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of composers for the theme of the event.

We wanted to explore fragments – short pieces, many of which are unfinished – and create a rapidly changing tapestry of different styles. Listening to the programme (and performing it!) really is a unique experience. You will hear fragments of pieces by Mozart and Schubert for the first time – ideas for sonatas that never saw the light of day. There are works that muse on death by Janacek, Stravinsky and John Woolrich, a touching Sarabande from Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and a philosophical puzzle by Robert Schumann. It provides a radically new perspective on familiar composers while the visual elements transport us to a surreal and unsettling world.

 

How do John’s Pianobook pieces work to hold the programme together ?

John’s Pianobooks are essentially a series of miniatures that explore a myriad of different themes – Goya’s Caprichos (engravings of witches and monsters that form a grotesque counterpoint to Enlightenment ideals), Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), and ‘micograms’ by visionary Swiss writer Robert Walser, highly admired by Kafka but then incarcerated in an asylum for much of his life. While the miniatures are ‘finished’, they are ephemeral and many just evaporate into thin air. They are the perfect partners to these vanishing fragments by more familiar composers, some of which barely register before they disappear.

How do the live music and the filmed content related to one another ?

We created the musical programme first and the Quay Brothers then put together a sequence of fragments from previous films that had been unused – left on the cutting room floor! Music and film are very tightly bound together and precisely synchronised. On the whole, music in a more familiar or tonal style is paired with abstract images, while John Woolrich’s music coincides with these grotesque puppets. The narrative, again, is fragmentary – it promises continuity and then snatches it away.

How would you like / do you hope audiences will respond to the immersive combination of music and film ?

Ghosts & Whispers is so unusual that it is impossible to predict how people will react. I hope that the audience will very quickly feel submerged in this bizarre universe, and that they think back to the piece for many years to come. I have performed it several times now and whenever I return to the work, I find more layers to unpack. It is certainly very macabre and, at times, unnerving but, in providing such an unorthodox perspective, it also brings depth and a wealth of new ideas.


The performance will fill the concert-hall on Friday 27 May at 8pm; book tickets here for what promises to be a unique experience…

A moment to savour: the nagging timpanist in Mendelssohn’s first symphony

Timpani players can have a fairly perfunctory role to play in music from the Classical era, largely (though not always) confined to articulating cadential moments in a symphony, or underlining a moment punctuated by the brass. (I’m aware this isn’t always the case, before people start writing in about later works such as Beethoven 9 and Berlioz to start with; and then there’s Bartok in the twentieth century…!). Timpani at the time were limited in pitch to a fourth or a fifth apart, tuned (until late in the nineteenth century) by a somewhat laborious method of ‘taps’ located around the head, which players had to turn by hand until the tension at the required pitch was uniform across the whole skin of the instrument.

Portrait of Mendelssohn Eduard Magnus (1846)

And then there’s Mendelssohn’s first symphony, and in particular, the third movement. In the Scherzo, Mendelssohn uses the timpani in an understated dialogue with the strings (although ‘nags the strings’ might be a more apt description), gently cajoling them out of the central Trio section and encouraging them back to the reprise of the Minuet.

It’s a striking moment; there’s not much happening melodically, sustained chords high in the violins over gently undulating legato phrases rising and falling the lower strings; it’s as though the timpanist thinks ‘right, I’ve had enough of this: time to get back to the start of the movement, folks!’ and so insistently begins to play in a way that provokes a response from the strings, forcing them out of their lull and back to the urgent, insistent character of the opening. (The timpani part is marked ‘solo’ at this point, so it’s definitely intentional). It’s ever so slightly menacing, at one point prodding the strings into an uncomfortable, diminished chord – and played with hard mallets rather than soft ones, it gives a wonderfully crisp, penetrating edge to the sound. It’s only two notes, but boy, do they work…

Hear that moment for yourself 18 1/2 minutes into the performance given here by Natalie Stutzman and the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo – and then come and hear it live with us in Canterbury Cathedral on Saturday 12 March…

Awkward Tiger: webchat with alumna and former Music Scholar, Steph Richardson

Many thanks to alumna and former Music Scholar, Steph Richardson, who joined me in the virtual studio this week for a live webchat about new fashion brand, Awkward Tiger.

Steph Richardson
Steph Richardson performing during ‘Jazz @ 5’ in 2012. Photo: Mick Norman

Since graduating in 2014 having read Drama & Theatre Studies (many readers might remember her singing with the University Big Band and the Chamber Choir), Steph has recently been working at Farnham Maltings in Surrey, and over the past eighteen months decided to launch her own fashion brand.

Headbands made by Awkward TigerIn the webchat, Steph talks about the inspiration for the company, the ethical values embedded in it, her love for British Sewing Bee, and her imminent move to work at the National Theatre. Watch it here if you missed it…

Time to tango: ‘Odilia’ by Maria Lluisa Ponsa in Minervan Miniatures series

It’s time to don your dancing-shoes for today’s episode of Minervan Miniatures, our series dedicated to exploring forgotten piano repertoire by women composers: ‘Odilia’ (tango) from ‘Mis pequeños amigos’ by Maria Lluisa Ponsa (1879-1919), published around 1918.

Watch the unfolding series in the Playlist here.

A finely-wrought gem: #MinervanMiniatures: Sonatine in F by Otillie Heinke

The series exploring forgotten piano repertoire by women composers, #MinervanMiniatures, unearths this finely-wrought gem by Otillie Heinke (1823-1888), the Sonatine in F major,  published around 1876. Enjoy the almost Valkyrie-in-miniature passage in the development, as a gently heroic theme in thirds echoes between the left- and right-hand.

See the developing playlist here.

 

Minervan Miniatures: The Four Seasons by women composers

Part of the fun of exploring new repertoire is coming up with creative ideas for programming it; and for the Minervan Miniatures recital series next year, exploring forgotten or neglected piano repertoire by women composers, here’s a foretaste of how that might work – The Four Seasons by Women Composers, a suite of pieces reflecting the changing seasons, all written by women.

Not your usual Vivaldi!

 

The suite I’ve put together is of music by Marguerite Balutet, Mary Earl, Carrie Williams Krogmann, Tatiana Stankovych and Nannie Louise Wright, ranging from the opening Valzer di Primavera through to Autumn: A Tone Poem and closing with Winter and A Skating Carnival.

See more of the repertoire in the series on our YouTube playlist here.

Continuities and radical surprise: the absorbing treasury of Magnificat 2

The second volume in the Magnificat series by Andrew Nethsingha and The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge takes a keen look at settings of the Evening Canticles across the years, from 1932 to 2019 from stalwart composers of the canon in Sumsion and Howells to perhaps lesser-known figures including Sydney Watson (who conducted the first performance of Walton’s epic The Twelve) and Giles Swayne, as well as contemporary titans Arvo Pärt and Julian Anderson.

Swayne’s wonderfully dynamic Magnificat I setting revels in repetition, bearing African influences, pitching glowing upper-voices over repeated lower voices, whilst a radiant ‘Amen’ recedes skywards. There is the usual vigorous, robust setting by Walton, a richly celebratory response to the text’s jubilation. Luminous cluster-chords opens Lennox Berkeley’s meditative, contemplative setting, which pushes ahead with a wonderfully expressive flow, in contrast to Swayne’s rhythmically robust response. Pärt’s hushed, timeless incarnation of the text is filled with a reverential awe in its widely-spaced textures and unhurried pace.

The disc finishes with the challenging, bracing setting by Julian Anderson, written for the college’s 150th anniversary in 2019. His Magnificat is vibrant with polyrhythms and a dizzying web of textures; contrasting lyrical, melodic lines unfold over glowing sustained chords in Anderson’s richly colourful tonal language. In contrast is a sedate, darker-hued Nunc Dimittis – which brings the whole disc to a reverentially hushed conclusion.

The introductory essay by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, speaks of “these ancient hymns, so redolent of continuities yet so full of radical surprise,” words true both of the canticles and of this absorbing treasury, impeccably performed by St John’s College Cambridge Choir under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha.

Magnificat 2 is released on 16 April on Signum Classics.