Nicholas Ashton, pianist solo, chamber, contemporary piano music

Nicholas Ashton, pianist

Programme Notes Birds and Landscapes: Hamburg Halle 424 17/7/19; Hamburg Stock Exchange 18/7/19; Edinburgh Fringe 20/08/2019; Reid Hall, Edinburgh University 24/09/2019; Birmingham Conservatoire 07/11/2019

Nicholas Ashton

Halle 424 Evening Concert, 17 July, 2019: Birds and Landscapes

I have attempted to theme my programme both in the concrete and abstract; each work presents either a direct evocation of either birds or landscapes, or points to something less tangible.

W. A. Mozart: Fantasia, C minor, Kv.475                                                 

Louis-Claude Daquin: Le Coucou, E Minor                                                           

Jean Philippe Rameau: La Poule, G minor                                                          

Robert Schumann: Vogel als Prophet, G minor, op 82/6                         

Maurice Ravel: Oiseaux Tristes (Miroirs no 2)                                         

Olivier Messiaen: La Colombe (Prelude no 1, 1928)                                            

Olivier Messiaen: Plainte Calme (Prelude no 6, 1928)                             

Claude Debussy: Clair de Lune (Suite Bergamasque no 3)                                   

Franz Liszt: Vision, G minor, (Etude d’execution transcendante no 6)     

Carl Maria von Weber: Rondo, C major, op 24/4                                    

Mozart: Fantasia in C minor, Kv.475.

This work was composed in a single day, in June, 1785 in Vienna and was published later in the year alongside his sonata, also in C Minor, Kv.457, which has a similarity of dramatic intent and also actual material. Many pianists have chosen to present both works together on the concert platform to highlight this. However, such is the power and directness of expression in the Fantasia, it can easily stand alone. A monumental, dark quality is immediately established with the opening motif, a rising diminished 7th, which progresses in a downward semi-tonal stepwise motion, producing an extraordinary sense of unease and dislocation; the composer seems to be searching, in a sense of abandonment, for some form of solace. It can be compared, in its magisterial and strange beauty, to the section of The Magic Flute, in which Tamino is lost (both literally and existentially) in the dark forest, wondering if Pamina is still alive. The great film director, Ingmar Bergman, stated that this passage in the opera is perhaps the most disturbing music ever written, and this Fantasia matches it note for note.

Louis-Claude Daquin was, along with the Couperins (father and son) and Rameau, one of the most prominent composers of the so-called French Clavecin School of the early 1700s, producing a quantity of exceptionally beautiful keyboard music that exploits both the virtuosic skills of the performer and in lyrical and expressive intensity. Much of the references are pictorial or directly referential, drawing from the influence of nature, myth and fantasy. This short work, possibly one of the most well-known and much beloved by young students and professionals alike, depicts the incessant, uniquely recognizable call of the cuckoo – both in the bird’s actual sound and in its recreation in mechanical form as a clock-work reveille. It was composed in 1735 and is taken form Daquin’s troisieme livre of pieces for the harpsichord.

Taking the cue from Daquin, his near contemporary, Jean Phillipe Rameau, delights in the musical evocation of the clucking of a hen, with its staccato rhythmic crow forming the perfect source for the percussive brilliance inherent in the keyboard technique of striking a rapid repetition of single notes on a harpsichord; this has attracted composers as diverse as Domenico Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart, through to Manuel de Falla and Gyorgy Ligeti. This piece is taken from Rameau’s Third Suite, composed between 1726 -27. The crisp rhythms, intricate ornamentation, and, towards the end, the satisfying crunch of bass chords all translate extremely well to the modern piano, and explains the increasing frequency of pianists programming works of this genre and period in their recitals, having survived the resurgence of the authenticity movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Although Schumann, like Chopin, was critical of audiences who expected to find concrete, programmatic depictions in his music, he was not averse to supplying specific titles, particularly in sets of later works, such as the Album für die Jugend op 68, Bilder aus Ostern op 56 and Waldszenen, op 82 (1849). Concerning this latter set, Schumann wrote:

“The titles for pieces of music, since they again have come into favour in our day, have been censured here and there, and it has been said that ‘good music needs no sign-post.’”

This beautiful – and very strange – piece is taken from this set. The title itself – Vogel als Prophet – is mysterious, and Schumann does not attempt to explain it, although the opening and closing sections, based on a hypnotically insistent rhythm, drawing an arpeggio from a dissonant starting note, are reminiscent of the calls of some exotic, lonely bird calling in the depths of the night. (Ravel may have had this motif in mind when composing his Oiseaux Tristes in 1905.) A brief middle section, like a chorale in its extremely regular rhythm and vertical block four-part harmonies, attempts to dissipate the melancholy stillness.

Oiseaux Tristes is the second piece from Ravel’s five-movement work of 1905, entitled Miroirs. It was the first to be composed (in 1902) and, in its hypnotic repeated note rhythm and gently lilting triplet accompaniment, it resembles Ravel’s Le Gibet from Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) in evoking an intensely melancholic atmosphere.  As with Debussy, Ravel is quite content with the idea of a specific theme, and although he is normally careful not to suggest a title.

The opening, plaintive melodic motif is vaguely reminiscent of Schumann’s own theme in Vogel als Prophet, although here there is much greater ambiguity of underlying harmony and the rhythm is extremely subtle, pointing ahead to Messaien.

Messaien composed his set of Preludes in 1930, very much under the influence of Ravel and Debussy and his mentor Paul Dukas, but infused with elements of both Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The influences notwithstanding, Messaien, in these pieces, is already in possession of what is termed a “voice”; that is, a distinctly individual compositional approach to tonality, timbre, rhythm and dynamic. The first piece, entitled la colombe/The Dove, presents an artistically conceived representation of bird-song (which was to become a central source of inspiration) in combination with an intensely Christian devotion, the dove representing the physical manifestation of Holy Spirit. The second piece, Plainte Calme, is more abstract in character, and there is a trace of the influence of Scriabin in its delicate, yet rich harmonies and elastic approach to phrasing.

Debussy composed an early version of Clair de Lune in 1890, much taken with the poem of the same title 1869 by Verlaine, which depicts the soul as “a chosen landscape” where dancers and masqueraders dance in the “sad and beautiful” moonlight. Debussy didn’t think much of the composition, and substantially revised it in 1905 when composing the suite bergamasque and including it as the third movement. The work has become his most well-known composition and one of the most beloved in the entire piano repertoire, and quite justly; an opening melody of extraordinary delicacy and plasticity is moulded around a sequence of rich, complex harmonies made up of augmented intervals, 6th chords derived from the pentatonic scale. A brief, more hymn-like passage leads to a fluid central section involving an arpeggiated accompaniment, which reaches a central climax before returning to the rapt stillness of the opening.

This etude, the sixth in the series of twelve Etudes d’execution transcendante and given the title Vision by the composer, is passionately dramatic and contains the seeds of a much larger work- it could almost stand as an introduction to an opera, with the same sweep of expression as the Bacchanal of Tannhauser, the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, or the marvellous Eb major horn-call arpeggios at the start of Das Rheingold. A majestic melody richly situated in the bass register of the keyboard is accompanied by arpeggio flourishes and underpinned by a tolling, bell-like bass. This is gradually opened out, modulating chromatically from the dark tonic key of G minor through D major, Bb major and Eb minor to a glorious climax in the tonic major, exploiting the full range of the keyboard in cascades of brilliant arpeggios and broken chords.  

Despite that fact that Carl Maria von Weber was considered to be one of the most impressive virtuoso pianists of his generation, his compositions for the instrument extend only to four complete sonatas, the wonderful Konzertstuck for piano and orchestra, and a few show-pieces, which include the famous Invitation to the Dance.

Compared to the range and diversity of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, Weber’s piano works – despite their many qualities – have not endured as central repertoire. This is a great pity, as they demonstrate many aspects of contemporary approaches to the piano; a concentration on technical virtuosity and brilliance (much admired and developed further by Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Schumann), and also a keen sense of drama, lyricism and sheer wit. This movement is the finale from his first Sonata, op 24, written in 1812, and it is a brilliant example of the kind of clever note-spinning, rhythmically alert and joyous sense of humour in piano-playing in which Weber delighted, and which demonstrates his gifts as an improviser.

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