Variations in 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.