Piano Pioneers: Clare Hammond at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [6] – Hélène de Montgeroult, Ravel, Beethoven, Coleridge-Taylor, Albéniz: Clare Hammond (piano).  Holy Trinity Church, Longlevens, Gloucester, 24.7.2023. (CS)

Clare Hammond © James O’Driscoll

Hélène de Montgeroult – Études from Cours complet pour l’ensignement du forte piano (No.62 in E-flat, No.66 in C minor, No.67 in B, No.103 in F-sharp minor, No.82 in C minor, No.104 in G-sharp minor, No.101 in C-sharp, No.107 in D minor)
– Sonata No.8 in C Minor, Op.13 ‘Pathétique’
Coleridge-Taylor – ‘Thata Nabandji’, ‘Deep River’ and ‘The Bamboula’ (from 24 Negro Melodies Op. 59)
– ‘Cádiz’, ‘Evocación’ and ‘Triana’ (from Iberia)

This diverse and engaging afternoon concert by Clare Hammond at the Three Choirs Festival was titled Piano Pioneers, presenting as it did a programme of works by ground-breaking composers who advanced the music of their time.  It was a thoughtfully curated programme, with significant and substantial works by Beethoven and Ravel at its centre, framed by selected, rarer ‘miniatures’ – though the latter certainly did not want for musical stature and expressive weight.

Having written informative notes in the Three Choirs Festival programme book, Hammond personally introduced each of the works to the large audience in Holy Trinity Church in an exemplary manner, her spoken accounts a model of clarity and succinctness.  Her performance was similarly consummate: her immaculate pianism was deeply communicative, balancing emotion and intellect.  Hammond’s technical control and musical insight were inextricable; similarly, her finely disciplined muscularity was able to convey both profundity and delicacy.  To say that her virtuosity was inconspicuous is high praise: her technical expertise served to communicate the musical arguments, by turns, with warmth, tenderness, assertiveness and daring, as she moved seamless between different idioms and forms.

Hammond reminded us that Ravel described Miroirs (1904-05), which was written as a tribute to members of Les Apaches (The Hooligans), a group of artists of which the composer was a member, as marking ‘a change in my harmonic development that was significant enough to discomfit even musicians hitherto most accustomed to my style’.  Hammond’s performance was notable not solely for her virtuosic authority but also for her astute and nuanced deployment of the power at her command.  Her musical palette was sophisticated, the visual images she evoked embracing and beguiling.  The dancing light and shadow of flitting moths in ‘Nocturne’, and the movement’s opposition of movement and drowsiness, were beautifully evoked.  In ‘Oiseaux tristes’ she captured both the dreamy lightness of the birds and an inherent forlorn quality, while the evenness of the waves in ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ was hypnotising.  There was boldness, bravura but also tender melodism in her portrait of a Spanish jester (‘Alborda del gracioso’), while the bells in the valley (‘La vallée des cloches’) rang with a gentle swinging motion, the bass anchoring the roving harmonies.

Straddling eras and boundaries, or rather initiating the movement from one to the other, seemed to be a theme of the recital, and Beethoven’s Sonata No.8 in C Minor marks a decisive move from the Classical to the Romantic.  In the opening movement, the transitions between the Grave, sombre and deep, and Allegro, spiky and cleansing, were expertly negotiated by Hammond, the stalling and regaining of momentum absolutely convincing.   I liked her rhythmic freedom, too, which made the work seem less ‘titanic’ than is sometimes the case, and it prepared for the dreaminess of the Adagio – though Hammond injected the slightest tension into the cantabile, subtly preparing for the anxiety of the central episode.  The Rondo: Allegro followed segue and was a model of lucidity and lightness.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor seems to be a more frequent visitor to the concert hall in recent years.  His 24 Negro Melodies, brief pieces in theme-and-variation form, were contemporaneous with Ravel’s Miroirs, and published by the Oliver Ditson Co. of Boston in 1905.  Holland wisely chose three contrasting melodies, representing songs from the United States, Africa and the West Indies.  I’m not sure they are really ‘innovative’, musically, though Coleridge-Taylor’s expressed desire to achieve ‘what Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian’ is admirable.  ‘Thata Nabandji’, on an African melody, had a virile robustness; ‘Deep River’ expanded persuasively from gentility to strength; ‘The Bamboula’, West Indian-derived was infectiously joyful and closed with thunderous aplomb.

Around the same time, Isaac Albéniz was composing his Spanish-inflected Iberia (1905-08).  Holland’s portrayal of Cádiz and the exotic panoply of songs and dances in the slow, dreamy ‘Evocación’, were equally characterful, though ‘Triana’, which depicts a gypsy quarter in Seville, might have had more swagger.

Clare Hammond © James O’Driscoll

The most surprising, and delightful, discovery came, for this listener, at the opening of the programme, however.  I was not familiar with the life and work of the extraordinary Hélène-Antoinette-Marie de Nervo de Montgeroult, a contemporary of Mozart who outlived Schubert by eight years and whose music seems decades ahead of its time, anticipating the innovations of those pioneering pianist-composers Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Thaler and even Liszt.

We are indebted to the French musicologist Jérôme Dorival for our knowledge of Montgeroult’s life and music.  Her biography reads like a nineteenth-century Romantic novel.  During the Revolution, she and her husband, a Marquis, undertook covert diplomatic missions to try to secure the safety of the French royal family, but they were imprisoned by the Austrian army on route to meet with the King of Naples.  Her husband died in prison and she was sentenced to death by the Committee for Public Safety, but, allegedly, Bernard Sarrette, the director of the Institut National de Musique, was present at her trial and vowed that her virtuosity made her indispensable for his Institut.  The story goes – and it’s so good that one wills it to be true! – that she moved her judges to tears, proved her patriotism and won her freedom by improvising variations on the ‘La Marseillaise’.  She then assumed a professorship at the newly formed Paris Conservatoire, the first women to occupy such a role.  (The next woman to be granted this position was Louise Farrenc in 1842.  It must also have been highly unconventional for Montgeroult to teach a class of male students.)

She resigned in 1798 (the year in which her son was born) but continued teaching privately, and in 1816, her three-volume Cours complet pour l’enseignement du forte-piano was published, the last two volumes of which comprise 114 piano études, which were composed between 1788 and 1812.   Montgeroult was herself an accomplished pianist; several composers, including her teacher Dussek, dedicated works to her, and her performances in the private salons where musical life blossomed in the post-revolutionary years were admired for the expressive cantabile style of her playing, one observer noting that ‘Madame de Montgeroult’s talent was wholly directed toward expression and the art of singing.  She made a particular study of phrasing in the manner of the great Italian singers Marchesi, Crescentini, etc.’

It’s this ‘vocal style’ that was most striking about Hammond’s performance of eight of Montgeroult’s études (she released a disc of 29 of the études last November, on the BIS label).  The smoothness of her execution was remarkable, the flexible phrasing – often the phrases seemed marked by vocal-like ‘breaths’ – and subtle use of rubato creating the illusion of ‘song’, as she allied technical expertise with thoughtful reflection.  These may be technical ‘studies’ but they are by no means mechanical or expressionless, and Hammond drew us into the poetic intimacy of each étude, her touch sometimes fleeting but the cantabile line sure, the details of the score expertly highlighted and sympathetically nuanced.

The diverse moods, expressed through shifts of harmonic shading and colour, were persuasively defined, all the while the sensibility was Romantic.  In Étude No.62 in E-flat the low-registered melody was imbued with varied colours; the arpeggiations of No.103 in F-sharp minor were a fluttering bed for the beautiful melodic line.  Rhythmic urgency characterised No.82 in C minor, while the chordal harmonies of No.104 in G-sharp minor conjured a tense restlessness.  If No.66 in C minor felt substantial, then No.101 in C-sharp spun a delicate thread.  Hammond’s articulation of the rapid bass line in No.107 in D minor was masterful.

It’s always uplifting when a performance reveals an unknown treasure.  How wonderful it would be to know more about Montgeroult – the musician, the woman, the aristocrat, the artist – and the networks – familial, aristocratic, political – within which she must have been an important figure.  Since most of her music-making took place in private salons, sources will surely be rare, and thus Hammond’s wonderful musical revelations are all the more precious.

Claire Seymour

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