United Kingdom Swansea International Festival – Sibelius, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Scriabin: Clare Hammond (piano), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 11.10.2015 (LJ).
Sibelius: The Trees, Op. 75
Beethoven: Sonata No. 4 in E flat, Op. 7
Mendelssohn: Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14
Scriabin: Sonata No. 5, Op. 53.
Athletic, intelligent and thoughtful are the first three words that come to mind after hearing Clare Hammond at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall on Sunday 11th October. Hammond’s solo recital was a glittering trove of musical gems. With its sustained depth and maturity, this treasure chest of music making bequeathed a great ruby of musical talent. Suffice it to say that Hammond’s musical education is as successful as her career as her career will undoubtedly be, for she earned a double first in music at Cambridge University and completed a doctorate in 20th century left-hand piano concertos. Hammond was utterly sophisticated and instantly charmed the audience with her gracefulness and poise – characteristics she brought to the piano for her recital.
The well-known pianist who specialises in Sibelius, Eero Heinonen, says of the composer’s works for piano: “there are technical difficulties, to be sure, but generally the piano texture is melodious and colourful – but unlike any other piano style”. Pantheistic and mellifluous, Sibelius’ Tree cycle, Op. 75 was the perfect start to this Sunday morning recital. Hammond captured Sibelius’s mystical ephemerality and with a subtle application of tension (and perhaps nerves) held the threads of melody together. In lieu of Heinonen’s comment, Hammond’s dynamic range coloured each piece though did not over sentimentalise. Her performance of The Spruce (the much loved fifth and final miniature), was sublime. This slow waltz was lifted by her elegant performance of the fast arpeggios in the risoluto section. Known for performing contemporary repertoire, foreshadows of Erik Satie sounded prominent at the hand of Hammond.
Choosing Beethoven’s 4th Sonata in E flat Op. 7, which usually lasts around 28 minutes, one immediately gleans a sense of Hammond’s ambitious personality. This daringness was heard to great effect in the Allegro and (unusually songful) Rondo. At times Hammond’s performance echoed Richard Goode’s 1993 recording. Hammond’s pace allowed Beethoven’s playfulness in the first movement and thoughtfulness in the second to come through. Her delicate touch and use of the soft pedal in the second movement (in C major) avoided reductive simplification. Hammond’s punctuation and earnestness brought out the consolatory character of the piece she introduced as an expression of the ‘tender and intimate emotions of the everyday’.
Mendelssohn’s Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14 with its E major andante in 4/4 meter followed by an E minor presto in 6/8 marks the composer’s use of slow movements and fast finales as well as his progression from major to minor that occurs in his ‘Italian’ Symphony. Hammond demonstrated her bravura and penchant for panache in this rousing piece.
Described by Scriabin as “a great poem for the piano”, his Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 contains energy and mysticism in equal measure. His epigraph to this peace reads:
I call you to life, oh mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
Of the creative spirit, timid
Shadows of life, to you I bring audacity!
This excerpt which he extracted from his essay Le Poème de l’Extase sums up the character of this notoriously difficult piece. Richter described this work as one of the most demanding in the entire piano repertory, along with Franz Listz’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Clearly not one to dodge a challenge, Hammond’s interpretation was full of the muscularity, rhythm, and tenderness required of the performer. Her sylphlike touch breathed a chillingly transcendental quality through the piece. Hammond played as a cloaked phantom gliding over the keys.
I would agree with BBC Music Magazine’s comment that Hammond has developed a reputation for “brilliantly imaginative concert programmes”. Sunday’s performance consisted of pieces that not only commented on each other but also culminated in the final piece by Scriabin. With a Bach Serenade as her encore, Hammond demonstrated her versatility as a performer. Though she is better suited to later (post-Romantic) works, her performance of Bach evinced the feeling and directness she demonstrated all morning.