Variations in 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.