Variations in 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.