Robert Saxton - Piano Music in Gramophone

"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.