Nicholas Ashton, pianist solo, chamber, contemporary piano music

Nicholas Ashton, pianist

Programme Note 26/05/16, Edinburgh Napier University

SACI Degree Show 2016
26 May, 2pm A78,
Piano Recital by Nicholas Ashton

Joseph Haydn
Adagio, F major, Hob.XVII: 9

This short adagio was composed in 1796 and may have been intended to take the place of a slow movement of a larger work, perhaps a complete sonata. As such, it remains a rarity, but one which displays Haydn’s ability to create intensity by juxtaposing elements of movement and statis within a simple harmonic framework – the two large pauses before the final cadence being examples.

Variations, F minor, Hob.XVII: 6

By contrast, this work, composed in 1793 is possibly Haydn’s most celebrated works for solo piano which is not a sonata, or using sonata form in the specific sense. The structure of the work is almost unique, in that it consists of two contrasting themes; the first a melancholy and rhythmically irregular figure in F minor and contrasted with a smoother and more lyrical melodic them in F major. Both themes are in two parts, ie. a short binary form.
These are each varied three times in the same order, before returning to the opening theme and coda. The relationship between the gently lilting accompaniment of the opening theme and the terse dotted rhythm of the melody – insistently present throughout the work – is one of its most fascinating elements. As with the Adagio, there is a balance, amongst the most perfectly realized in all Haydn’s mature works, between a repetitive Classical symmetry and the positioning of silence as an importance constituent; this is most striking in the final return of the first theme and the coda, when the rhythm motif of the theme, modulating with increasing distance away from F minor, is dovetailed carefully with two controlled pauses. The effect is unsettling – it turns on its head the listener’s expectations of what is to follow, rather in the manner of the sudden evaporation of the regular rhythm – famously the feature of the second movement of the Symphony No 101 (“the Clock”).

Arnold Schoenberg
Six Little Piano Pieces op 19

Schoenberg’s compositions for the piano are both important and influential, although – unlike his contemporaries Bartok, Stravinsky and Prokofiev – he was not a skilled pianist. His output is also very much more varied than his close colleagues Alban Berg (whose only mature piano work is the Sonata op 1) and Anton von Webern (similarly, in his Variations op 27); it comprises four collections of pieces, op 11, 19, 23 and 33 and a Suite op 25, as well as the Concerto op 42.
In his choice of composing primarily in small forms and experimenting with new ideas within them, Schoenberg can be closely compared with Brahms, in whom he saw a progressive and equally experimental nature. The musical sensibility shared between them is often overlooked. Despite the innovative quality of his writing, Schoenberg was essentially a Romantic rooted in the Classical Austro-Germanic tradition of Haydn and Beethoven, which his marvellous book Fundamentals in Musical Composition clearly demonstrates.
These pieces, composed in 1911, are perhaps the composer’s most extremely concentrated work. The propulsion is melodic within the context of a carefully maintained non-tonal framework, although the ghost of harmonic resolution still lingers, particularly at cadence points and the ends of phrases. In their brevity, the exploitation of timbre and dynamic at the softer end of the spectrum, the organisation of small fragments – or cells – of melody, reveal a closer affinity with Webern than any other work of Schoenberg.
The first piece – at 17 bars, the most substantial of the set – consists of eight delicate melodic phrases interrupted by a tiny cadenza-like section, made up of a dotted rhythm and filigree arpeggio.
The second piece features a static rhythmic minor third motif over which a brief melodic shape is floated.
The third piece sets thick forte chords in the right hand over a melodic contour in pianissimo left hand octaves.
The fourth piece opens delicately with an airy dotted rhythmic shape, but closes with a violently hammered transposition of it.
The fifth piece – a ghostly reference to a Minuet, also begins quietly, but explodes in a cascade of descending major and minor thirds.
The final sixth piece is an exceptionally poignant tribute to the memory of Gustav Mahler, who died two weeks before the piece was composed. It has been suggested that this piece should be seen as the negation of a funeral march, in which the accents on the strong beats have been eliminated. Here, the absolute extremes of soft dynamics are required – it ends with the marking pppp “wie ein Hauch” (‘like a sigh”).

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Papillons, op 2

This was the second work of Schumann to appear in print in 1832 after his op 1 Abegg Variations. The title Papillons (Butterflies) may have originated at the time of some poems “Schmetterlinge”, which Schumann wrote two years previously while he was living at the home of Friedrich Wieck, his teacher and future (unwilling) father-in-law. The poems were all based light-heartedly upon the characters of his teacher and various friends; this fantastical element is central to the ephemeral quality of the subsequent piano composition.
In addition, the evocation of a masked ball in the Finale, which quotes the theme of a popular waltz, the Grossvatertanz, is derived from a scene in a contemporary novel by Jean Paul, “Die Flegeljahre”. This almost programmatic concept is adopted in other, more ambitious works, particularly “Carneval” op 9, which features descriptive titles for each number.
The work begins with an arpeggiated figure, rather in the manner of a curtain-raiser, revealing a tiny waltz theme of gentle, delicate melancholy. An abrupt modulation , from D major to Eb major, catapults the ebullient Florestan on-stage, and his presence thereafter (in numbers 3,4,6,8 and 9) is alternated by the delicate introversion of Eusebius (numbers 1, 5 and 7). The two characters share the other numbers 10, 11 and particularly and most ingeniously in the Finale, which simultaneously superimposes the opening waltz theme over the Grossvatertanz theme and then proceeds to dissolve both, but at different speeds, while gradually introducing six delicate chimes on A signalling 6 o’clock (presumably ante meridian !). A remarkable feature of the work is the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated keys in which the numbers are set. The strange, trance-like disappearance of the opening and finale themes at the end of the work and the dissolving of a dominant 7th harmony using harmonics lend the work an almost hallucinatory quality.

Nicholas Ashton was educated at Chetham’s School, Manchester, at RNCM, the University of Edinburgh and on postgraduate scholarships at the Conservatoire de Musique, Geneva and the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Frankfurt-am-Main.
Following a formal debut at the 1980 Manchester International Festival, he performed widely throughout Europe for ten years, as a concerto soloist and recitalist. His main teachers were Renna Kellaway and Joachim Volkmann and he also studied with Murray Perahia, Menahem Pressler, Jorge Bolet and Vlado Perlemuter. His first major public recital in Scotland in 1995 was highly praised and resulted in regular offers to play. A live recording of a subsequent recital at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh was brought out on CD in 1996. Since then he has performed to critical acclaim in concerts throughout the UK, Germany and Italy. He has also contributed regularly as a performer and in interview for the BBC, in Germany for NDR 2 and 4, Bayern 4, Radio Suisse Romande, Radio New Zealand and in the USA.
He has performed over one hundred separate solo and chamber programmes at the Stock Exchange Hamburg for the Hamburg Chamber Music Society (of which he was Artistic Director in 2002). In 2005 he was invited to give recitals and masterclasses at Central Washington University, USA, in 2009 to Pirkenmaa University for the Applied Arts, Tampere, Finland, in 2009 the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, USA and in 2010 again to Tampere, Finland; at the Udine Amici della Musica Festival, Italy, (2013), Paxton House Summer Music Festival and the Overtone Festival, Hamburg (2014).
A CD recording of the complete works for piano and the piano quintet by the distinguished Scottish composer Robert Crawford, released on the widely respected Delphian Records label in February 2008, attracted very high praise in the media, including International Record Review, The Scotsman, The Herald, Musical Opinion and The Gramophone.
Recordings of contemporary two-piano repertoire with Lauryna Sableviciute, and of the complete works for duet and two pianos by Mozart with the British pianist Andrew Wilde are in preparation. Nicholas has been a regular chamber music partner with the Edinburgh Quartet, having performed with them a substantial part of the core piano quintet and quartet repertoire.
Nicholas is Senior Lecturer and B.Mus Co-Programme Leader at Edinburgh Napier University. His carefully nurtured students have been regularly successful in competition and as postgraduates at all the British conservatoires. From 2010-13 he was Specialist External Assessor for Keyboard at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and was a member of the Board of Directors of the Scottish International Piano Competition in 2014. He is also in demand as an adjudicator.

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