Reviews for Variations

The Telegraph

"Hammond keeps us enthralled to the last bar" — Ivan Hewett

Some pianists charm and caress you with subtle shadings and half-tones, some seize you by the scruff with steely-fingered decisiveness.

Clare Hammond is definitely one of the latter sort. Her latest album, an exploration of the art of variation – i.e. ringing ever-more elaborate changes on a pattern or melody announced at the beginning – certainly shows off that aspect of her talent. It avoids the familiar masters of the genre like Beethoven and Schumann, focusing instead on 20th and 21st-century pieces.

Among them is the Variations by Aaron Copland, a piece that will instantly disabuse anyone of the idea that Copland was just a purveyor of cheerful, all-American folksiness. Its pitiless, hard-edged abstraction made it a favourite of Leonard Bernstein, who took a mischievous delight in emptying the room at swanky Manhattan parties by playing it at full volume. Hammond makes it seem as huge and steely as the Brooklyn Bridge, but without resorting to sheer force. She balances the sonorities carefully, so we can hear the original idea gleaming through all the dissonant barbed-wire Copland erects around it.

The same combination of power and dramatic sweep with careful attention to detail can be heard in the other pieces. In the craggy, immense Chaconne by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina she allows no respite from the drama, which builds in waves of rising and falling tension to the final dénouement. She softens the sinews of Hindemith’s severe 1936 Variations with subtle tempo variations, and brings a nice sense of cat-like stealth to Birtwistle’s Variations on the Golden Mountain.

Not everything is hard and monumental. John Adams’s I Still Play has a diffident waltz-like charm. And the Variations on a Polish Theme by Karol Szymanowski is as far from Copland as you could imagine. The piece is in his most impressionist, sensuous vein, and Hammond responds with a delicate but still firmly shaped touch, and a deft use of pedal that reveals the bones under all the luxurious flesh. It may not be a masterpiece but Hammond keeps us enthralled to the last bar.

International Piano

"a questing, highly intelligent pianist... stunningly recorded at the height of her powers" — Colin Clarke

This is an impeccably programmed album of variations from the 20th and 21st centuries. The Szymanowski Variations on a Polish Theme holds whole worlds of contrasts within its lushness (including a notably dark 'Marcia funèbre'). This is set in relief against the almost Bachian purity of the Lachenmann-Schubert, based on an Ecossaise (D643). Hammond perfectly captures the spirit of the dance in its modernist garb, finding lyricism in the most disjunct lines.

Birtwistle's Variations from the Golden Mountain and John Adams' I Still Play are tributes to Bach's Goldbergs. The Birtwistle is laudably unhurried, with Hammond again finding beauty in dissonance. Adams' music is less memorable (the composer has described it as 'Satie meets Bill Evans') but receives a stunningly uncompromising performance. Hindemith's elusive Variations are the perfect prolongation, their impeccable craftsmanship reminding us of this wonderful composer's stature.

Closing with Gubaidulina's virtuoso Chaconne is a brave move, but it pays off. A companion to Hammond's 2014 Etude album, Variations reveals a questing, highly intelligent pianist with a superb technique stunningly recorded at the height of her powers.


"a pianist of extraordinary gifts" — Patrick Rucker

In a relatively short time, Clare Hammond has established herself as a pianist of impressive abilities who avidly explores repertory of the past century, along with the music of her contemporaries. Her interesting new BIS recording encompasses variations of many types, composed between 1910 and 2017 by Polish, German, Russian, British and American composers.

Hammond’s special affinity for Polish music is amply evident in her performance of Variations on a Polish Theme, written when Szymanowski was still a student in Warsaw. Without stinting on the work’s essentially late-Romantic virtuoso elements – Heinrich Neuhaus and Arthur Rubinstein were, after all, early Szymanowski champions – Hammond’s performance highlights the many elements of the composer’s mature style already in evidence. Her considerable virtuosity is given even fuller rein in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, dating from roughly half a century later. Hammond renders this almost relentlessly vertical piece deeply expressive by the skilful voicing of its massive chords.

Another early work is the Five Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert by Helmut Lachenmann (born in Stuttgart in 1935), which uses Schubert’s Écossaise, D643, to seemingly demonstrate the composer’s distance from, rather than proximity to, the early 19th-century master. Hindemith’s Variations from 1936, perhaps the most beautiful music on the recording, is played with great insight and finesse.

In Harrison Birtwistle’s terse, almost pointillist Variations from the Golden Mountain, Hammond finds proportion and meaning in the most isolated sounds. If John Adams’s I Still Play, written as a retirement gift for the head of Nonesuch Records, is slight in both means and portent, Hammond discerns just the right mode for its forthright sincerity. Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations is surely his masterpiece for the instrument. Hammond’s grasp of this formidable intellectual edifice is secure throughout, abetted by a beguiling colour palette, unfailing textural clarity and plenty of rhythmic vigour.

Ultimately this is a richly wide-ranging, deftly chosen programme, exhibiting intellectual curiosity and probity, played by a pianist of extraordinary gifts. Hammond also supplies her own keenly intelligent annotations. Highly recommended.

The Observer

"the displays of invention can be dazzling, especially in the way Hammond programmes them" — Fiona Maddocks

Pianist Clare Hammond has a knack of mixing repertoire to revealing effect. Her latest album, Variations (BIS), is a sequence of seven sets of 20th- and 21st-century variations. The description of the form – a theme repeated many times with modifications – may seem unpromising, but the displays of invention can be dazzling, especially in the way Hammond programmes them.

Harrison Birtwistle’s From the Golden Mountain (a reference to Bach’s Goldberg Variations), stark, explosive, on a tight rein, is followed by John Adams’s I Still Play, allusive, fluent and also inspired by the Goldbergs. In addition to Szymanowski’s monumental Variations on a Polish Theme, Helmut Lachenmann’s 5 Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert, and works by Copland and Hindemith, the high point is the grand finale: Sofia Gubaidulina’s ambitious Chaconne (1963). Hammond has given us an ear-bending and virtuosic recital.

The Times

"a player of immense power, tightly harnessed now to the moment’s expressive needs" — Geoff Brown

I once reviewed an early concert appearance by the British pianist Clare Hammond and found her a brute force, prone to “full-tilt hammering”. In her mid-thirties Hammond still exudes the air of someone who sprinkles her morning cereal with iron filings, but these days her hard determination lies less in the fingers than in her rigorous appetite for unfamiliar music. An album of esoteric piano études has been followed by this adventurous selection of variations composed between 1904 and 2017.

Although the fingers hammer no longer, she remains a player of immense power, tightly harnessed now to the moment’s expressive needs, whether that’s a virtuoso storming of the keys or the lingering resonance of an isolated bass note.

The most fully satisfying pieces, Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Theme and Sofia Gubaidulina’s imposing Chaconne, a student piece, are also the most changeable in mood, while Copland’s craggy 1930 Variations stand out for being almost terrifyingly blunt and monolithic.

Nothing Hammond does can win me over to the bristle of her Birtwistle or the dry mechanics of 1930s Hindemith. Yet you still emerge from this album largely refreshed and enlightened by her formidable technique, lack of preening and insatiable repertoire probing. And her neatest discovery? Surely it’s Helmut Lachenmann’s unusually benign Schubert Variations of 1956, an early work that never once suggests his later amazing activities subjecting instrumental sounds to the equivalent of vivisection.

Crescendo (Belgium)

"one of the most exploratory pianistic personalities of our time" — Jean Lacroix

Originaire de Nottingham, la pianiste britannique Clare Hammond étudie à Cambridge, puis à Londres, où elle écrit une thèse sur les concertos pour la main gauche commandés par Paul Wittgenstein. En concert, elle fait toujours preuve d’imagination en programmant des pages peu courantes du répertoire, démarche qu’elle reproduit dans ses enregistrements : des partitions de Saxton pour Toccata, des concertinos de Palester pour un label polonais et, pour BIS, des oeuvres de Mysliveček ou Hesketh et un album « Etude », où l’on retrouve Chin, Lyapunov, Kapustin et Szymanowski. Pour le même label, Clare Hammond propose maintenant un éventail, sous le titre de « Variations », de sept compositeurs du XXe siècle. On lira avec intérêt dans Crescendo, à la date du 16 février dernier, l’entretien que la pianiste a accordé à Pierre-Jean Tribot : Ce programme est le plus exigeant que j’aie jamais enregistré, y explique-t-elle, à cause de cette diversité. J’ai appris énormément sur l’instrument et sur l’expression.

Clare Hammond est aussi la signataire éclairée de la notice de cet enregistrement, gravé en décembre 2019. Elle précise en avant-propos qu’elle a choisi des séries de variations qui transcendent la forme dans des myriades de manières créatives et, parfois, audacieuses. Szymanowski et ses fougueuses Variations sur un thème polonais op. 10, écrites au début du XXe siècle lorsque le compositeur achève ses études au Conservatoire de Varsovie, ouvrent la série. Cette page d’un peu moins de vingt minutes -un thème et dix variations- est très virtuose, encore empreinte d’un romantisme enflammé qui se nourrit de Richard Strauss, de Franck et plus encore de Moussorgski, faisant penser souvent à la densité des Tableaux d’une exposition. La jeunesse du créateur, inspiré par une mélodie des Tatras, l’entraîne dans un univers qui est déjà orchestral et marqué par une urgence ardente, soulignée par un toucher coloré, voire délicat. Le sommet se situe à la huitième variation, une résonance de glas y est magnifiquement intégrée, avant que l’œuvre ne se termine en apothéose dans des accords triomphants.

L’Ecossaise D. 643 inspire les 5 Variations sur un thème de Schubert de Lachenmann qui datent de 1956. C’est encore une œuvre de jeunesse, de l’époque où le compositeur se forme à Stuttgart, sa ville natale. Le côté dansant est conservé, mais Lachenmann le distribue entre véhémence stéréotypée et aspects émotionnels, malicieux ou narquois. Les impulsions augurent des options futures qui orienteront le créateur vers la recherche de phénomènes sonores des plus subtils. Avec Birtwistle en 2014, l’hommage passe de Schubert à Bach et aux Variations Goldberg, devenues Golden Mountain, dans un espace d’épisodes brefs dont Clare Hammond souligne avec art l’économie et la finesse de la sculpture. A son habitude, ce compositeur, adepte d’une musique emportée, introduit la puissance par des explosions tonitruantes et un carillon de cloches. En 2017, John Adams rend lui aussi hommage aux Variations Goldberg, mais dans un contexte que l’on qualifiera de souple et d’intime, avec une valse contrariée et une atmosphère de vitalité sans prise de tête. Clare Hammond rappelle qu’Adams lui-même évoque ici un style à la « Satie rencontre Bill Evans ». C’est dire le côté clin d’œil de cette pièce qui salue la retraite de Robert Hurwitz, président du label Nonesuch.

Les Variations de Copland de 1930 ont été proposées par le compositeur âgé de trente ans à Walter Gieseking qui les refusa, les jugeant dissonantes, mais Bernstein, qui admirait Copland, les considéra comme une œuvre « prophétique ». Qualifiée de série de variations peut-être la plus monolithique du 20e siècle par Clare Hammond, cette partition à l’indiscutable grandeur accumule les successions de variations pour en faire une vaste construction au discours spectaculaire, allant jusqu’à l’utilisation de toute l’étendue du clavier. C’est très impressionnant. Quant aux Variations de Hindemith, elles datent de l’époque où les nazis rejettent sa musique en 1936. D’abord destinées à être un mouvement de sonate, ces huit minutes à la fois émues et rythmées ont pris la forme d’une pièce isolée, profondément nostalgique. L’allusion à la situation du compositeur est claire, à travers l’emprunt à une ode issue du cycle des fleuves de Friedrich Hölderlin, Der Main, qui évoque l’exil. Le programme s’achève par la très dynamique, mais aussi inquiétante, Chaconne de Gubaidulina de 1963, dédiée à la pianiste géorgienne Marina Mdivani, en hommage à son jeu vivant.

Ce programme éclectique et original est servi par Clare Hammond avec une remarquable force de conviction. Elle s’adapte aux différentes atmosphères avec une technique très sûre et une facilité déconcertante, affrontant avec aisance les nuances, les progressions, les ambigüités, les vastes étendues ou les moments d’intimité contenue ou dévoilée. La lecture simultanée de ses commentaires dans la notice, où nous avons puisé notre inspiration (quelle meilleure guide ?), montre à quel point elle n’hésite pas à aborder des pages qui sortent de l’ordinaire et la classent parmi les personnalités pianistiques les plus exploratrices de notre temps. Elle annonce pour l’an prochain la sortie d’un disque sur la compositrice française Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836), reconnue comme l’une des meilleures improvisatrices de son époque. La découverte va donc demeurer la priorité de Clare Hammond ; les mélomanes avides de raretés ne peuvent que s’en réjouir.

Son : 10 Notice : 10 Répertoire : 10 Interprétation : 10

MusicWeb International

"meticulously curated and thrillingly executed" — Richard Hanlon

This SACD is by no means the first ever release consisting solely of sets of variations, but it is quite possibly the most imaginatively sequenced that has crossed my path. One imagines it would work most effectively in the recital hall. As on her previous recordings, Clare Hammond plays everything here with vivacity, intelligence and outstanding technique. Most impressive is her communicative spirit in those items which are likely to prove more challenging for some listeners. It may be a surprise if I were to tentatively suggest that Copland’s famous work might actually be a tougher nut to crack than those by Lachenmann and Birtwistle which feature on this issue.

Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Theme is a somewhat elusive product of the composer’s early twenties, a substantial and vividly contrasted set which is arguably as accomplished a big statement as either of his second and third sonatas. The influences of the usual suspects, most obviously Richard Strauss and early Scriabin are inevitably to the fore, but Hammond never loses sight of the bigger picture; the imaginative way she points up the considerable timbral and emotional contrasts between the ten variations creates the illusion that the conspicuousness of the theme itself decreases as the piece proceeds. The most obvious change in tone occurs with the eighth variation, an austere, Mussorgskian Marcia funebre which Hammond builds superbly before she tackles the extended finale; this includes a fugue which seems Brahmsian in its accessibility for the listener but appears to approach Regerian complexity for the performer. Hearing the Variations on a Polish Theme in this context (as opposed to on an all Szymanowski disc) suggests it contains far more substance and depth than I had previously realised.

If the appearance of the name ‘Helmut Lachenmann’ on a recital programme is likely to strike fear into traditional pianophiles, his 5 Variations on a theme of Franz Schubert (the product of another composer in his twenties) prove to be playfully invigorating in a rather Kagelian manner. This is a most enjoyable confection which contrasts virtuosic levity with gnomic unpredictability. It’s dispatched by Clare Hammond with palpable engagement. That word ‘gnomic’ is also perfect for the initial musings and Pinter-pause inculcated stutterings of Harrison Birtwistle’s splendid Variations from the Golden Mountain. To my ears Birtwistle’s style is instantly identifiable, and here his gruffer fingerprints are softened by moments of astringent tenderness. I have a high regard, even affection for Birtwistle’s music – it invariably projects a no-nonsense Northern-ness which really gets under my skin and Hammond finds it in spades in these strange variations which emerge as unexpectedly pianistic. Its campanologically touched conclusion is resonant and haunting.

A neatly contrasted diptych of Americana follows. John Adams’ recent I Still Play is brief, subtle, warming and clever. It’s a little tribute to Robert Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records and consequently one of Adams most crucial patrons. The swaying elegance of its first half yields to oddly-syncopated little figures which stop short of full-on jazz. Hammond unerringly conveys the authentic affection at its heart. For listeners unfamiliar with the piece, Copland’s thorny Piano Variations of 1930 may well come as a shock. This is bare, fastidiously constructed, pared-down dissonance infused with tiny rhythmic diversions which swing briefly. I have consistently found the work difficult to love. To Clare Hammond’s great credit, she turns in one of the most coherent accounts of this diffuse, tentative and frankly sinister score I have yet encountered. The overlaps with Copland’s earlier and more directly communicative Piano Concerto come vividly to life. It is also superbly recorded – ensuring that an entire spectrum of previously unsuspected colour and depth emerge from a work I have previously found arid and unforgiving.

Hindemith’s Variations of 1936 originally formed the second movement of his first piano sonata but it eventually became an independent work in its own right. The harmonic profile of its stately opening has much in common with that in Musica Humana, the mighty central panel of the same composer’s symphony Die Harmonie der Welt. The piece proceeds with both purpose and caution, until a puckish Bewegter variation strikes a contrasting tone. This melts into a more densely scored episode (again brilliantly caught by the BIS engineering team) which in turn yields to light, declamatory figures rich in ornamentation, the effect one of blissed-out suspension. The close of the work returns the listener to the serenity of its opening. Again this pianist makes a strong case for a work which has never really struck me as one of Hindemith’s masterpieces.

The disc concludes with Sofia Gubaidulina’s early Chaconne. Its virile opening chords create a similar impact to the initial bars of Galina Ustvolskaya’s uncompromising Piano Concerto but whilst that fine work doggedly sticks to a stable pulse throughout its duration, Gubaidulina’s extraordinary piece is the embodiment of the widest possible variety of pace, colour, mood and dynamics in what emerges here as a whirlwind tour-de-force of pianistic pyrotechnics. It’s fascinating how its rapid central section seems to move almost imperceptibly between Scriabinsque ominousness, Shostakovich-like irony and Schnittkean world-weariness. These turn-on-a-sixpence emotional transformations are powerfully conveyed in Clare Hammond’s unfailingly musical reading.

In sum, ‘Variations’ amounts to a meticulously curated and thrillingly executed anthology of examples of the genre collated from the literature of the last 120 years. Clare Hammond is a committed and exciting advocate for each of these pieces notwithstanding the austerity at the core of a couple of them. That the programme hangs together so cogently is as much a tribute the depth of her knowledge as it is to her musicality. The recording is ample and welcoming in both stereo and surround options although, as ever, I prefer to hear solo piano fare through two speakers. Pianophiles seeking something off the beaten track will find much to enjoy and admire here.

BBC Music Magazine

"shimmering pianism and lightly-worn virtuosity" — Paul Riley

Hot on the heels of Nicholas Hodges’ premiere recording of Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain (Wergo) comes a second gilded ascent. Clare Hammond includes Birtwistle’s typically craggy homage to Bach’s ‘Goldbergs’ in an illuminating CD exploring variation form through twentieth and twenty-first century perspectives. And if that sounds potentially dry or academic, not a bit of it: Hammond casts her net with a flairfulness and acuity ‘rich in contrast’ (to purloin Sofia Gubaidulina’s description of her 1963 Chaconne which, under Hammond’s exhilaratingly determined fingers, brings the disc to a close with trenchant, coruscating resolve).

Contrast isn’t just built into the choice of composers; it’s stitched into the works themselves. The young Helmut Lachenmann orbits Schubert’s Ecossaise D643 with a playful commentary on the 20th century musical landscape peppered with pungent allusions to the likes of Gershwin in Paris, or Stravinsky; and, according to its composer John Adams, ‘Satie meets Bill Evans’ in I Still play. The landmark Variations by Adams’ compatriot Aaron Copland are teased out with rugged purposefulness, and unswerving clarity of sound and substance – a potent counterpoint to Hammond’s idiomatic account of Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Theme Op. 18 where shimmering pianism and lightly-worn virtuosity are conjoined in a compelling surrender to the music’s voluptuous embrace. If, across the Birtwistle, Hodges musters the greater edginess, Hammond yields nothing in the carefully calibrated juxtapositioning of textures, dynamics and movement. And she burrows deep into the moments of velvety repose.

Musical Opinion

"artistry of the highest order'" — Paul Conway

Compiled with care and imagination, this BIS release offers a variety of approaches to variation form by a diverse range of composers. The chosen repertoire is both unconventional and rewarding and it is a measure of Clare Hammond's versatility as a performer that she succeeds in bringing to life the highly individual character of each of the seven featured works.

Written in 1904, Karol Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Theme dates from his student years at the Warsaw Conservatory. Late-Romantic in its sweeping gestures and anguished spirit, this set of ten variations on a Polish folk tune also contains moments of delicacy and poise. Both extremes of expression are joyously conveyed in Clare Hammond's detailed and natural-sounding interpretation. The theme itself is presented in a confessional manner and the variations flow out of it with disarming inevitability. Variants which require virtuosity are delivered with fire and intensity, yet it is in the quieter, more reflective moments that the composer's personality at its strongest and most original. The eighth variation, 'Marcia funebre' is perhaps the most distinctive with its bell-like sonorities and Hammond responds with great sensitivity to its restrained nobility. Containing bravura passages and moments of filigree lyricism, the substantial final variation feels like a quintessence of the whole piece and is convincingly climactic in Hammond's exultant rendering.

Helmut Lachenmann’s Five Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert (1956) is another work dating from its composer's early years. The theme, taken from Schubert's Écossaise, D 643, is presented softly and without irony. Lachenmann subtly weaves in echoes of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy in the second and fourth variations, but, what sounds to my ears like hints of Gershwin's An American in Paris in the third variation are less easy to fathom. Halting and uncertain, the dislocated closing variation seems, on the face of it, far removed from Schubert's original dance music, yet the essence of the Austrian master's personality is miraculously retained. Clare Hammond's command of a broad repertoire pays dividends in her variegated realisation of Lachenmann's eclectic, compact and thought-provoking score.

Written in the composer's eightieth year, Harrison Birtwistle's Variations from the Golden Mountain (2014) has the sparseness of texture and economy of gesture that comes from a lifetime exploring sonorities. It's a concise and wonderfully refined composition, consisting of a series of short, related episodes rather than full-blown variations. Clare Hammond allows the music time to breathe, observing scrupulously and to considerable dramatic effect the many eloquent silences in this spare and concentrated piece.

John Adams’s I Still Play (2017) is an example of what the composer calls his 'Satie meets Bill Evans' style. Intended to meet the capabilities of non-professional players, the work has effortless elegance and takes its insouciant waltz theme through some pleasingly unexpected turns in its compact five-minute duration. Hammond's relaxed reading is perfectly attuned to this graceful, stylish music.

Aaron Copland’s trenchant and rigorous Piano Variations (1930) is performed with plenty of grit and determination, yet Hammond's deeply expressive realisation is also alert to the material's lyrical qualities. Her secure architectural grasp of the score is impressive and serves to guide the listener through this often tough, uncompromising music effectively and revealingly.

Paul Hindemith’s Variations from 1936 were inspired by Hölderlin's poem, Der Main. Its subject matter of exile and longing for home struck a chord with the composer and its wistful, yearning tone is caught by Hammond, who is also mindful of the music's darker, troubled elements. Arguably the most emotionally complex piece in the programme, it elicits playing of superb concentration and discernment.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s powerful and dynamic Chaconne (1963) makes a satisfying conclusion to the recital. Covering a very wide emotional range in nine minutes, it celebrates the virtues of variation form by encompassing the maximum degree of contrast within a taut framework. The work's technical challenges are surmounted with ease in Hammond's sovereign account.

This highly recommended disc presents artistry of the highest order placed entirely at the service of the music. The close recording captures faithfully the scope, richness and acuity of Clare Hammond's interpretations.