"Included in the Top 10 Contemporary Classical Albums of 2018" — Paul Driver
Saxton's work united craftsmanly rigour and a wide-ranging fantasy, the latter quality being explicit here in a double sequence entitled Hortus Musicae, Book 1 and Book 2. These "musical gardens" variously invoke what he calls a "sacred space", taking inspiration from Marvell, Auden, the Song of Solomon and even Proust, in the beautiful reminiscences of Beech Bank (A la recherche). Hammond begins her deft recital with the Chacony for Piano Left Hand and single-movement Sonata.
"an exhilarating reading from Hammond" — Kate Wakeling
Robert Saxton, celebrated for the unswerving integrity and intellect he brings to his music, is perhaps best known for his visionary vocal works. This fine disc, beautifully performed by Clare Hammond, sheds welcome light on the composer's solo piano music and brings together Saxton's interest in early Christian mysticism, Medieval and Renaissance music, as well as his tonal and serialist training.
Earlier works begin the disc, including the tautly-structured Piano Sonata (1981) and Chacony for Piano Left Hand (1988). The latter opens to cautious whole-tone scales before swirling with dense and majestic counterpoint and receives an exhilarating reading from Hammond. But at the disc's centre are premiere recordings of Books 1 and 2 of Hortus Musicae (Garden of Music), composed in 2013 and 2015, which explore the notion of the garden as a 'sacred space'. These two collections are enchanting: at once playful and serious, exploratory, intellectually vigorous and, very often, deeply poignant.
The disc closes with the affectionate miniature Lullaby for Rosa (2016), written to mark the birth of Hammond's daughter, and standing as testament to the musical understanding shared between performer and composer.
"an excellent account" — Pwyll ap Siôn
To that old chestnut ‘does the composer write for the instrument or the performer?’, the answer is probably a bit of both in the case of Robert Saxton’s recent piano music. Hearing Clare Hammond give, in Saxton’s words, a ‘radiant and inspired’ performance of his Chacony for piano left hand (1988) for her doctoral recital prompted the composer to embark on a project that yielded two large-scale books for solo piano during a fecund two-year period.
Evocatively entitled Hortus musicae (‘A Garden of Music’), the five pieces contained in Book 1, composed in 2013, are study-like in their tendency to focus on a specific element. Scale-like patterns in contrary motion permeate No 1, repetition and variation are heard in No 2, the contrapuntal elaboration of a quasi-plainchant melody is explored in No 3, modal and pentatonic combinations are fused in No 4, while No 5 draws on all elements in a playful dancelike peroration.
The seven pieces that constitute Book 2 (2015) are more serious in scope. Built on contrasting block-like structures, the set opens with dense and resonant textures dredged from the murky depths of the piano’s low range before sweeping across the piano. Saxton takes more creative risks here, with No 4 presenting a tangle of tunes (some recognisable, others less so) in the form of a Proustian-style musical puzzle. The virtuoso No 7 provides a fitting and dramatic conclusion.
Central to the music’s efficaciousness is Hammond herself, of course. Book 1 arguably foregrounds the surface qualities of her playing, such as purity of line and shape, but Book 2 delves deeper, challenging the pianist to maintain clarity and transparency in often more complex and multilayered settings.
Hammond also gives an excellent account of the much earlier Piano Sonata. Written in memory of Béla Bartók, it starts with a mercurial main theme which darts around animatedly, pausing for short gasps of breath before surging forwards. The sonata ends with stasis and movement collapsing into one another in a frantic flourish of rising scales and dense chords. That Hammond succeeds on both counts is testimony to her musicianship but also to Saxton’s ability to write effectively with performer and instrument in mind.