Variations in Gramophone

"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.