Variations in 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.