Nicholas Ashton, pianist solo, chamber, contemporary piano music

Nicholas Ashton, pianist


selected reviews

Carol Main: The Scotsman,  1 May, 1997 The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

“A new name in the local performing pool is always intriguing and when the pianist is of the calibre of Nicholas Ashton, returning to a solo career at the encouragement of Murray Perahia, interest is not surprisingly heightened. In a programme of well-known Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, he may have taken a risk in playing such familiar classics; but no, this unpretentious and disarmingly modest pianist brought a refreshing gentility to his choice…. He is a highly sensitive artist: a delicate lucidity of texture coupled with a melancholy sensuousness opened to thrills and some heart-tugging passion.”

Martin Parker: The Scotsman, 28 October, 2000 four stars out of five

Nicholas Ashton has a fascinating presence on stage. Rather like a surgeon, he wasted no time in stitching Beethoven’s op 34 Variations together on Tuesday and then with deft and articulate movements scurried around the piano in Copland’s cartoon-like Cat and Mouse with formidable accuracy. The other Copland works included two UK premieres – Midsummer Nocturne and Midday Thoughts and the Variations from 1930.
Although the Variations are almost monochromatic in their harmony, Ashton whisked them through a full range of colour and texture. After these carefully performed operations, there was still time to play Schumann’s Abegg Variations, brightened with effortlessly clear articulation.

Martin Parker: The Scotsman, 21 May 2001 The Queen’s Hall four stars out of five

You may not need an orchestra to play the horrendously difficult Three Movements from Petrushka by Stravinsky, but Nicholas Ashton could have done with an extra pair of hands- in the excitement of Thursday’s piano recital some of the complex detail was lost. The high point of concert was Six Little Pieces by Schoenberg, op 19. Ashton’s immaculate touch on these crystalline miniatures brought out their glinting, flinty textures.
Schubert’s G major sonata, D 894 showed Ashton’s sensitivity to the long-range impact of the piece. His playing has a charge and vigour that captures any audience’s attention; as an academic, clearly he has a handle on the analytical structures behind the notes, and as a musician he retains an edgy spontaneity.

Susan Nickalls: The Scotsman, 17 April 2007 The Queen’s Hall four stars out of five

Fauré’s Piano Quintet in d minor Opus 89, with its luscious textures and sculpted melodies, was by far the most substantial and polished work on the programme. The quintet was always on the move, even in the reflective adagio, yet it was the tenacity of pianist Nicholas Ashton that largely held the piece together…. It was difficult to believe the composer of this meticulously scored quintet also wrote the unrestrained and self-indulgent La Bonne Chanson Op. 61. Alluding to events in his own troubled love life, Fauré’s setting of nine romantic poems by Paul Verlaine never quite convinced, despite a highly eloquent and persuasive performance from baritone James McOran Campbell. Ashton was given a less overwrought part to play, which he did with sensitivity and panache.

Conrad Wilson: The Herald, 20 April 2007 The Queen’s Hall four stars out of five

Nicholas Ashton is a pianist who draws you instantly into a performance. Beethoven’s early C major Rondo, with which he opened his recital last night, was a case in point. Though music of no great moment, it can suddenly take you by surprise and here it was in the hands of someone who ensured that it did. Its midway switch from major to minor and, towards the end, the way it ground disconcertingly to a halt, were treated as major events in an otherwise minor work. Ashton’s treatment of it caught all the flair of Beethoven’s improvisatory genius.
The big, infinitely superior E flat Sonata, Op 7, which followed, sustained and enlarged the mood. Ashton, who knows how to communicate with his audience through his perception of Beethoven’s pauses and silences, captured the beauty and stillness of the rapt largo, marked to be played with “great expression”.
In the context of such intimate playing, beautifully gauged to the size of the hall, he met the composer’s demands without exaggeration but with responsiveness to every chord, loud or soft. Later came tributes to two anniversaries, the 250th of Scarlatti’s death and the centenary of Grieg’s, in the form of sonatas tiny and large. Scarlatti’s pointillist music was delivered as keenly as the grander design of Grieg’s E minor Sonata, Op 7, whose passion and poetry were resuscitated – the work is shockingly neglected – with flair.
Between these came the Sonata No 108 by the fecund John White, a potent piece of neo-Ravel by a composer, now in his seventies, whose music likewise needs the kind of championship Ashton can give it.

Kenneth Walton: The Scotsman 16 February 2008 four stars out of five

It is tempting to say that Robert Crawford wasted three decades of his compositional life by becoming a BBC music producer, which effectively knocked the progress of a very interesting creative Scots voice on the head. But what we are left with – – and the 83-year-old is by no means finished – – is a kernel of work that is both fascinating and very listenable.
The most astonishing factor in these premiere recordings, which team up Crawford’s piano music spanning almost 50 years with his 2005 quintet for piano and strings, is the connection between the old and the new. Two major piano works – the Six Bagatelles of 1947 and the 1951 Sonata No.2 – represent the earlier composer and a style rooted in the traditional modernism of the mid-20th century. Shades of Bartók inform the Sonata’s arioso, performed with bold conviction by pianist Nicholas Ashton. The playful innocence of the Bagatelles reveals the composer’s whimsical side.
In the Sonata Breve, written as a test piece for the 1991 Scottish International Piano Competition, the range of colour – from moody impressionist textures to virtuoso outbursts – is brilliantly captured in Ashton’s multifaceted playing. And he injects A Saltire Sonata with an additional hint of nostalgia, reflecting the fact it the music was implanted in Crawford’s mind many years before he committed it to paper.
All in all, the string of consciousness running through this selection is illuminating, completing its course in the 2005 quintet – an intertwining of modernism and romanticism played passionately by Ashton and the Edinburgh Quartet. There’s enough evidence here to sell the notion that Crawford is a musical force to be reckoned with.

Robert Matthew Walker: Musical Opinion March-April 2008

A record such as this is long overdue, for Robert Crawford’s fine music has long demanded a wider audience than it has hitherto received. Robert Crawford was born in Edinburgh in 1925, and is a very self-critical composer who has produced a distinguished – but not prolific – body of work over the past 60 or so years. He is a natural composer, very much from what might be termed the expressive stream of 20th century music, certainly serially derived, but his is a distinctly atmospheric and at all times intensely musical voice. I dare say the composer himself chose the music on this record, music which he feels shows him at his best, and it makes an impressive collection, especially in such committed and excellent performances as these. Each one of these five works is worth the attention of all genuine music-lovers, from the Bagatelles of 1947 to the Sonata Breve and Saltire Sonata of 1991, and the recording quality is first-class. The booklet notes by Dr Adam Binks are models of their kind. Strongly recommended.

The Herald four stars out of five**** February 2008

Contemporary Scottish music continues to receive enthusiastic support from the extraordinarily active Edinburgh based recording company, Delphian. This recently released CD features the music of Robert Crawford, who, as he approaches his 84th birthday, is introduced as the elder statesman of the Scottish music scene. Pianist and university lecturer, Nicholas Ashton joins forces with the Edinburgh Quartet in a programme which ranges from the early solo piano works of 1951 through to the very substantial Quintet of 2005. Despite his early successes back in the fifties, Crawford’s creativity fell completely silent for all of thirty years, resurfacing only in the late eighties. Since then a substantial body of chamber works has followed. In these world premiere recordings, performances are uniformly good. In the solo piano works – Six Bagatelles, Sonata No.2, Sonata Breve and A Saltire Sonata – Ashton brilliantly captures Crawford’’s fascinating approach to colour, drama and virtuosity, while the richly romantic melodic invention of the Quintet is vividly presented in a performance brimming with passion. A real find.

Arnold Whittall: The Gramophone, May 2008

In 1947, while a student in London, the 22-year-old Robert Crawford composed his set of Six Bagatelles for piano, the earliest music on this disc. The most recent is the Piano Quintet from 2005, one of the later fruits of a composing career which Crawford only resumed at the age of 60 after several decades as a journalist and BBC producer. Back in 1947 Crawford comes across as a natural neo-romantic with occasional neo-classical tinges, suggesting that he might have flourished as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger. By 1951, with his Second Piano Sonata, the style had crystallized into the kind of mixture of reflectiveness and flamboyance found in a composer like Sir Arthur Bliss. Much of the piano-writing is rather conventionally florid, but forms are skillfully managed, and with advocacy as persuasive as that of Nicholas Ashton the music regularly takes wing. There’’s a particularly appealing “arioso” theme for the third movement, and touches of humour in the finale suggest affinities with the film music of Crawford’’s main mentor, Benjamin Frankel. Fast-forwarding to 1991, the Sonata breve has an effective base in centred dissonance that links up with later Tippett, though A Saltire Sonata, completed the same year, has less striking materials and works less well in terms of form. Finally, the single-movement Quintet, in which Ashton is joined by the Edinburgh Quartet, reinforces the strengths of an approach that is always alert to new ways of contextualizing quite conventional musical gestures, and no less adept at inhabiting the compositional mainstream than many much more familiar names. Excellent recordings, too.

Calum MacDonald: International Record Review April 2008

Now in his eighties, Robert Crawford has been a civilized and civilizing presence in Scottish music for over 60 years, as composer, critic and BBC music producer. The latter two roles absorbed his energies from the late 1950s to 1985, so that his creative output, which is largely centred on his chamber and instrumental music, falls into two widely separated periods, both of them represented on this welcome new CD. The Edinburgh Quartet have been associated with Crawford throughout much of their life and changing membership – both his early string quartets are in their permanent repertoire – but their participation here is in fact limited to the 14 minutes of the recent (2005) Piano Quintet. Otherwise this is a solo piano disc, its burden admirably borne by Nicholas Ashton, a pianist who has already had a distinguished international career for the past two decades but who for some unaccountable reason I’’ve never encountered before: he is a very impressive artist and plays Crawford’’s music with a palpable quality of passionate belief as well as perfect technique. This splendid disc of world prèmiere recordings -– Delphian’’s recorded sound is splendidly vivid – – is a belated recognition of a notable composer. Enthusiastically recommended!

 Susan Nickalls: The Scotsman September 2008 Robert Crawford Portrait Recital, Stockbridge Parish Church

Now in his 80s, Robert Crawford is at an age where most composers can look back on an impressively large opus of works. However, a busy career as a BBC producer along with a meticulous approach to composition conspired to keep the Edinburgh-born writer’s output to a minimum. This concert by pianist Nicholas Ashton, as part of the Sonic Fusion Festival, consisted of Crawford’s entire works for the instrument: three piano sonatas and six bagatelles.

Both the Sonata Breve and A Saltire Sonata were written in 1991, share similar thematic material which each develops in different ways and are set in one continuous movement. The shorter Sonata Breve is more free-flowing, with the third pedal used to create shimmering ephemeral textures. The more restrictive ten-tone structure used in A Saltire Sonata, set out in a form that mimics the cross of the Saltire, produced a more robust work with a delightfully quirky middle section.

There are echoes of Debussy and Bartok in Crawford’s music and particularly Prokofiev in Sonata No 2 Op 5. The intricate development of simple melodic material was precisely articulated by Ashton who had a chance to exploit some of the more delicate colours of the Bosendorfer piano in the arioso which followed on from a sparky scherzo.

Although extremely short, Crawford’s 1947 Six Bagatelles Op 3 contained a freshness and spontaneity that was sometimes lacking in the other works.

Conrad Wilson: The Herald, Scotland, 29 September, 2008 Sonic Fusion Festival:  Robert Crawford Portrait Recital, Stockbridge Parish Church

Things had fared better the previous evening when Robert Crawford’s complete music for solo piano – three shortish sonatas and six bagatelles – was presented by that admirable pianist Nicholas Ashton at Stockbridge Church. Crawford, now an octogenarian, is an Edinburgh composer with a following that exceeds his quantity of compositions. Though his output is narrow, and could be said to consist of early works and late works but nothing representative of a middle period, he ensures that everything he produces is a quality product of a conspicuously fine and fastidious talent. The piano pieces have recently been recorded.

Some of them, such as the Sonata Breve of 1991, which opened Ashton’s recital, stand on the brink of keyboard impressionism. The earlier four-movement Sonata, Op 5, of 1951, with its tiny, whirlwind Scherzo, has a Beethovenian feel, without ever sounding like Beethoven. The single-movement Saltire Sonata of 1990 toys fascinatingly with atonality, polytonality and all three pedals of the piano – on this occasion a sonorous Bosendorfer, employed to impressive purpose.

In all these works, along with the aphoristic, faintly Prokofievian bagatelles, Crawford has exploited the upper and lower reaches of the keyboard to brilliant effect. Scales plunge like a skier down a hair-raising ski slope. As a classical interlude, Ashton threw in Haydn’s wonderful E major Sonata of the 1770s – music filled with sudden, deliberate stops and starts, which fitted the context of this recital like a glove.

Spaziergang durch die Hamburger Musikgeschichte: Mai 2013

Oberhafen. Bis zur Fertigstellung der Elbphilharmonie hat jeder zu Scherzen bereite Musikanbieter in Hamburg einen Schuss frei, seinen Spielort mit dem Zusatz Philharmonie aufzuhübschen. Die Oberhafenphilharmonie also befindet sich in der Stockmeyerstraße 43 gegenüber vom sympathischsten und schiefsten Wirtshaus der Stadt, der Oberhafenkantine.

Dort geht am heutigen Sonnabend der zweite Teil des neuen Kammermusikfestivals Obertöne über die kleine Bühne des Hauses. Renommierte Lokalmatadore wie Juditha Haeberlin (Violine), Miriam Götting (Bratsche) und der Initiator und künstlerische Leiter Franck-Thomas Link (Klavier) treffen auf Gäste wie den Briten Nicholas Ashton oder den Cellisten Johannes Krebs, um ausschließlich Musik von Hamburger Komponisten aufzuführen oder von solchen, deren Name eng mit Hamburg verknüpft ist. “In den Pausen: Hamburger Küche und Kurzfilme”, verspricht der Flyer. Veranstalter ist der Hamburger Kammerkunstverein, dem die Musiker alle angehören.

Obertöne Sa 25.5., 17.00–22.00, Oberhafenphilharmonie (U Meßberg), Stockmeyerstraße 43, Eintritt 30,- ohne Verzehr/erm. 15,-

Ileach: the independent newspaper for Islay and Jura,  Issue 49/20, July 2022 Brian Palmer

The first half ended with a Haydn solo piano piece (F minor Double Theme and Variations Hob.XVII/6), performed by Nicholas Ashton.
He was joined after the interval and raffle, by violin, viola and cello to perform a Beethoven piano quartet (Eb major, op. 16). It’s astounding, that after years of listening to records, how satisfying it is to listen to live music and witness such superb musicianship.

Bendrauti prie fortepijonų. Tarptautinio fortepijonų duetų festivalio koncerto „Organum“ salėje atgarsis
Review by Daiva Tamošaitytė
Piano Duo Festival, Organum Concert Hall, Vilnius, Lithuania, 16/05/24

The first half of the programme, presented by the piano duo Re:Sono (comprising the Lithuanian pianist Lauryna Šablevičiūtė and the British pianist Nicholas Ashton), introduced the audience to current trends in music by contemporary British composers writing for the medium.

The pianists began with the premiere of five songs from Graham Lynch’s cycle for two pianos “Songs of Love and Death”. These are arrangements of music dating back to the 16th century, which preserve the rhythms and rhythmic figures characteristic of the period. The cycle of short contrasting songs is valuable as an educational opus, although it is rather modest and not very inventive.

This was followed by Stephen Pratt’s “Moving Forward”; it can be said to be a premiere, as it is the second performance after the previous evening’s concert in the Polyphonia Hall in Šiauliai (the seventh part of this opus was written specifically for the duo). This work was quite different in character – an effective, sparkling work.

The duo continued with Diana Čemerytė’s very interesting and inventive work, “Three perspectives”, first performed live back in 1995. Having been resurrected from oblivion, such a work once again testifies how important it is to keep performance of good writing public. The duo closed their performance with Benjamin Britten’s “Prelude and Rondo alla Burlesca”. A favorite of pianists, this piece sounded crisp and powerful, with a great climax.

The duo plays very harmoniously, academically and strongly; Šablevičiūtė and Ashton know the repertoire well; they are deeply committed to the periods and stylistic elements of the music they play, and communicate the impression of solid, serious, professional work. True, the playful habit of the Briton to put the scores of the song transcriptions he played on the ground was a little distracting.

Translated from the original Lithuanian.


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