Nicholas Ashton, pianist solo, chamber, contemporary piano music

Nicholas Ashton, pianist

Programme Note 12/01/17, Glasgow University

Programme notes by Nicholas Ashton

Joseph Haydn

Variations, F minor, Hob.XVII: 6

This work, composed in 1793 is possibly Haydn’s most celebrated work for solo keyboard 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 second melodic theme in F major. Both themes are in two parts, ie. each a short binary form.
These are each varied three times in the same order, before returning to the opening first theme, which disappears into a dramatic 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. 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”).


Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata op 26 Ab major

This work was composed in 1802 in Vienna and is a fine example of Beethoven’s gradual assimilation of sonata style into a more individual structure, which was to become an increasing feature of his writing, particularly in the so-called middle and especially late period sonatas. None of the movements is actually in sonata form: the first is a Theme and Variations, the second a quick Scherzo and Trio, the third a ternary form March and the Finale a Rondo.

The result is a reciprocal arrangement between structural form and expressive content at the same time less formal and more fluid than earlier works. The next sonatas, op 27, are both entitled quasi una fantasia and this subtitle may refer directly to the experimentation which is begun in op. 26.

The key of Ab major generally drew an expressive and lyrical approach from the composer; the slow movement of his (perhaps most famous) sonata, the op. 13 Pathètique, is set in the key, as is the extraordinary slow movement of his lesser known sonata op. 10 no. 1 and the slow movement of his first piano concerto. In these cases, Beethoven uses the key as a kind of relief from the drama and tension which is generated by the home key of C minor, and this sub-mediant relationship (between C minor and Ab major) is an increasing hallmark of his approach to harmonic structural relationships; it influenced Schubert to a remarkable degree. The other sonata set in Ab major appears at almost the very end of Beethoven’s output, that of the masterpiece op 110, which matches and expands upon the lyricism found in this work.

Both factors (formal structure and key/harmonic relationships) must have appealed to Frederic Chopin – he particularly admired this work and used it in his teaching, and it is also possible that he took the third movement funeral march as the starting point for his own in his second sonata op 35, although in Beethoven’s case, the approach to music for a funeral is that of grandeur, pomp and ceremony; in Chopin’s, the reference is to the abyss of grief, loneliness and loss. Beethoven actually entitles it as Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe. The great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer remarked about the Rondo finale that the texture should be evocative of a gentle rainfall, dropping picturesquely upon the gravestone of the fallen Hero.


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 solo 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

Variations on a Theme of the name ABEGG, op 1 (1830)

This was the first work of Schumann to be published and given an opus number, thus initiating an illustrious series of piano works, most of which have become central to the piano repertoire. There is some intricacy concerning the background of the theme (A, Bb, E G, G) which is formed from the surname of a young woman, Meta Abegg (which Schumann playfully dedicated to her as the “Countess Pauline d’ Abegg”); her name, “Meta”, is also an anagram of “Tema”, the German for “Theme”.


The work is an example of the kind of musical style with which the composer hoped to ingratiate himself towards well-to do, well-trained (and thus socially highly eligible) young female pianists, of whom there were a great many in Leipzig at the time. The Variations require a highly polished and highly virtuosic technique, much lighter and more delicate than his later and larger works, rather more in the note-spinning manner of Hummel, Weber and Mendelssohn. Despite this similarity, this early work immediately displays Schumann’s individuality, particularly in the contrasts between expressive lyricism and exuberant brilliance depicting the composer’s fictitious characters, Eusebius and Florestan.




Nicholas Ashton was educated at Chetham’s School, RNCM and in Geneva and Frankfurt. Following a successful early career as a soloist, he worked as a teacher, translator and in artist management before resuming performing after encouragement from Murray Perahia and Menahem Pressler.

A critically acclaimed debut at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall led to a commercial live disc of the recital in 1996 and increasing offers to play both in the UK and in Germany, where he has been a regular guest artistic director of the Hamburg Chamber Arts Association Society since 2000, performing over sixty separate solo and chamber recitals. He has also given many recitals and masterclasses in the USA, Finland, Italy and throughout Germany and the UK.

Nicholas has recorded many times for the BBC, (recently accompanying two soloists on Radio 3’s In Tune performing in Bellini’s Norma at the Edinburgh International Festival 2016) on West German NDR 2 and 4, Bayern 4, Radio Swisse Romande, Radio New Zealand and in the USA. His repertoire extends to some 25 concerti, solo repertoire ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary, a wide range of chamber music and Lied.

In 2008, a première recording, for Delphian Records, of the complete piano works and piano quintet by Robert Crawford received international praise in the media. Nicholas works with Lithuanian pianist Lauryna Sableviciute, with whom he has recently formed a duo entitled Re: Sono, with the intention of combining new work written for two pianos with less-well known repertoire. Lauryna and Nicholas have already received commissions and dedications from a number of composers and have premiered them. Nicholas is also preparing a recording of the complete works for two pianos and piano duet by Mozart, including the two piano concerto K365, with the German pianist Franck-Thomas Link for 2018; also in 2018 he will co-produce a documentary film concerning Chopin’s brief but memorable stay in Scotland 200 years previously.

Nicholas combines his playing with a busy schedule as Senior Lecturer and Co-Programme Leader for the Classical Bachelor of Music with Honours Degree at Edinburgh Napier University, leading classes covering all aspects of performance as well as supervising all instrumental and vocal teaching. His carefully nurtured students have been successful in developing their work as postgraduates at all the major British conservatoires.

Between 2010 -12, Nicholas was Specialist External Assessor for all undergraduate and postgraduate pianists at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and was a member of the Board of Directors for the Scottish International Piano Competition in 2014. He is also in demand as an adjudicator, including at Eton College, St. Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh, the High School of Dundee and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He has recently been invited to become a Co-Director of a newly-founded Music School in Dunbar.

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