Clare Hammond – Gubaidulina

First, one of those embarrassing small musical world admissions: the pianist Clare Hammond was a contemporary of mine at university. Although I didn’t know her well, I won’t forget the day I heard her give a solo recital in a college chapel. Many of my fellow undergraduates were excellent musicians, but I was blown away by her playing. It was immediately clear that Hammond was a pianist of the highest standard, with a potential career as a solo artist shining brightly before her. 

As I recall, her programme that day included a piece by the Australian composer Carl Vine. Evidently she was someone who cared about venturing beyond the core classical repertoire and into the world of contemporary music – very much my kind of musician.

That exploratory curiosity has certainly been borne out in the intervening years, as is demonstrated by Hammond’s discography. Her latest album, Variations, brings together pieces by Symanowski, Birtwistle and Hindemith, among others. But the stand-out piece for me is the final track: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, an early work from 1962, coming in at just under ten minutes.

This is a ferocious piece – one I didn’t know before, but which gripped me immediately. It announces itself with broad fortissimo chords like granite blocks, a brutal equivalent to the stately opening you might expect from the title’s Baroque form. Soon we hear the era’s pompous dotted rhythms too. But this is the Baroque recast in a modern mould: dissonances crunch, chords tug mysteriously in parallel movements. 

The first few iterations of the theme keep fairly steady, but soon the music starts to disintegrate, exploding into passages of virtuosity as Gubaidulina furiously reinvents her material, including some terrifying thundering octaves. I love how she toys with the familiar textures of old music – its balanced, intuitive patterns – but then keeps tearing these elements apart. At times it’s as though Bach were reconstructed for the industrial age: resurrected into a world of clanging steel girders and roaring traffic.

And as it happens, this Chaccone is having a bit of a moment in the limelight right now, as it featured in the recent Wigmore Hall livestream by rising star Isata Kanneh-Mason, part of a programme of works for International Women’s Day. Watching Kanneh-Mason’s performance makes an equally strong impression, and I can’t help but feel that if someone like Stravinsky had written this piece it would be revered as a masterpiece of 20th-century piano repertoire.

I highly recommend exploring Hammond’s discography, and in particular I draw your attention to her recording of Unsuk Chin’s formidable Etudes. Hammond wrote an admirably candid article about the effort it took to learn these works, spending ‘months pounding away in a practice room underground’, but eventually finding her own way to make them speak. I wouldn’t trust many musicians to succeed in that aim, but she certainly does.

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