Nicholas Ashton, pianist solo, chamber, contemporary piano music

Nicholas Ashton, pianist

Programme Note 19/20/23 August 2015, Hamburg (English)

Programme Notes for:

1. Hamburg Oberhafen 19 August 2015 (Haydn, Schoenberg, Beethoven, Schumann)

2. Hamburg Stock Exchange 20 August 2015 (Haydn, Schoenberg, Schumann)

3. Harburg 23 August 2015 (Haydn, Schoenberg, Beethoven, Schumann)

Josef Haydn

Sonata Hob.XVI:41 Bb major

This sonata is the second in a set of three sonatas that Haydn composed in 1784, which were printed together as a set (Hob.XVI 40 in G, 41 in Bb and 42 in D) and dedicated to Princess Marie Esterhazy, at whose family’s estate Haydn was employed. To put the date in context: it was around this time that Haydn had met Mozart. The two composers had immediately struck up a mutually admiring rapport: the six “Haydn” string quartets, written by the younger composer, are a tangible result of this meeting.

However, in terms of comparison between what Mozart was writing at the same time for solo piano and this work by Haydn, there is little evidence of influence: Mozart composed his most dramatic and forward-looking piano sonata in C minor, K457 in 1784, whereas Haydn – at least in this work – displays a far lighter character.

The first movement, a brisk and incisive sonata form movement, features an opening of playful, almost coquettish humour in the quick-march type dotted rhythm, subsequently smoothed out with a graceful and reflective second subject of almost aria-like melodic quality over a triplet accompaniment. The development – so typically of Haydn – veers abruptly off course in a sudden modulation to Db major. No other composer had greater ability to make an audience hold its collective breath in suspense in this section of sonata form: it is the moment of greatest instability and Haydn grasps this opportunity with extraordinary intelligence and wit.

The second movement is an equally clever Rondo, with a an opening theme bearing a faint similarity to the opening contour of Beethoven’s almost impossibly titanic Hammerklavier sonata op 106, written some 36 years later. The close relationship between Haydn and Mozart is widely recognised, but it is often overlooked – to the extent of misinterpretation – that Beethoven also hugely admired Haydn and it would be very unlikely than even a sonata of such lightness and humour as this (given that it is in the same key) would have escaped Beethoven’s attention.

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 – consist 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 pieces 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”.

Robert Schumann

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.

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 form 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 and very clever 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 Pathetique, is set in the key, as is the extraordinary slow movement of his lesser known sonata op 10 no 1. In both 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 was extremely influential on Schubert. 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 on 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 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.


Nicholas Ashton was educated at Chetham’s School, RNCM, at the Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst, Frankfurt and the Conservatoire supèrieur de musique, Geneva. His teachers were Renna Kellaway and Joachim Volkmann and he received coaching from Vlado Perlemuter, Jorge Bolet and Joaquin Achucarro, Pierre Laurent Aimard; and chamber music coaching from Roger Raphael, Emmanuel Hurwitz, Cecil Aronowitz and Lamar Crowson.

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, for whom he played at the Centre for Advanced Studies Aldeburgh in 1993, and Menahem Pressler at Banff Center for the Arts, Canada, in 1996.

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 artist of the Hamburg Chamber Music Society for fifteen years since 2000. Examples of recitals and masterclasses include: in the USA (Central Washington University, 2005; University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 2009), Finland (Tampere University of the Applied Sciences2009, 2010), Italy (the Amice della Musica Series in Udine, 2013) at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow (2000 to 2015), RNCM and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Nicholas has recorded many times for the BBC, on West German NDR 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 early French Clavecin School to the contemporary, a wide range of chamber music and as an accompanist.

In 2008, a première recording of the complete piano works by Robert Crawford which also included the Piano Quintet, received international praise in the media. Nicholas enjoys a regular collaboration with the Edinburgh Quartet, having performed almost all of the major piano quintet repertoire at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Huddersfield, at the Edinburgh Stockbridge Series and Paxton House Music Festival; and the 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 premiered works in performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Liverpool Hope University and the Universities of Glasgow, Salford and at planned concerts at the Universities Surrey, Hull, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Edinburgh Napier, RCS and in Germany.

Nicholas has an increasing interest in performing contemporary and rare repertoire and a recording for Meridian Records, sequenced around the form of the chaconne including a commissioned work for three pianists at one piano by Kenneth Dempster is in preparation; and for Delphian Records a second recording of contemporary two piano repertoire (including works by Edward Harper, Lyell Cresswell, Nigel Osborne, Robert Crawford, Kenneth Leighton, Drew Hammond, Jane Stanley, Stephen Pratt). He is also preparing a recording of the complete works for two pianos and piano duet by Mozart with the German pianist Franck-Thomas Link.

Nicholas combines his playing with a busy schedule as Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for the Classical B.Mus Hons Degree Industries 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, having been invited to judge the Senior and Junior Piano competitions at Eton College (2012), the Senior and Junior Music Prizes at St. Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh (2011, 2013), at the High School of Dundee (2007, 2009) and for the Holden Mozart Competition (2010. 2013) and the Walcer Chopin Prize (2015) at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Nicholas is currently planning to undertake performance

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