Debussy – Etudes, Book I
Birtwistle – Variations from the Golden Mountains (world premiere)
Mozart-Busoni – Giga, bolero, e variazione
Birtwistle – Gigue Machine
Debussy – Etudes, Book I
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
This was a fascinatingly programmed recital, which proved to be more than the sum of its considerable parts. Debussy’s Etudes bookended two Birtwistle works, both splendidly original and full of ‘traditional’ resonance, with Busoni reimagining Mozart (partly, like Birtwistle, reimagining Bach) at the centre. Nicolas Hodges’s interpretations played to and upon the programming, drawing out – and enabling the listener to draw out – connections, rather than presenting ready-made ‘individual’ performances. And, of course, there was the small matter of a Birtwistle premiere in his eightieth birthday year.
The first six Debussy pieces opened with a stark, elemental ‘pour les “cinq doigts”’, its simplicity almost aggressive. Uncertainty invaded, preparing a typical dialectic between opposing yet related tendencies. There was great clarity to Hodges’s performance; this was forthright, even high modernist, Debussy. ‘Pour les tierces’ put the interval in question in the foreground from the outset, permitting elaboration, variation, something akin to discussion. Harmonies, if some way still from the non-functional, were readily apparent as constructions from intervallic material: an obvious contrast with, say, many of the composer’s Préludes. Such was not, of course, always the case; indeed, contest was in good part the thing. The importance of intervals, at any rate, reminded one that Webern was far from the only begetter of Boulez and the post-war avant garde. And then, the third study seemed to take in more of the world of those far-from-superseded Préludes: Debussy – and a good performer – will always question, even confound. Mediæval resonances of the fourth, organum in particular, made their point without a hint of the archaic. In ‘pour les octaves’, Post-Lisztian pyrotechnics combined with modernistic insistence, even at times, glare, seemingly born of the first study, whilst ‘pour les huit doigts’ seemed to take its leave from that first piece’s dexterous explorations: post-Czerny, as it were, though with Liszt not so far away either.
Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain – ‘I’ve been listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations a lot recently; I thought it was obvious.’ – received its first performance, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann. It was inevitable, doubtless, but still striking how much the ear found, and was led to find, points of connection with Debussy at perhaps his most ‘abstract’. A generally and, for the composer, unusually slow tempo, following a toccata-like opening flourish, made no difference to the typical yet typically unique senses of mechanism and of its progress and halting. Perhaps that tempo, as well as the instrument, enabled more of a post-Webern pointillistic impression than one often gains from Birtwistle, at least at times. Stockhausen occasionally came to mind in that respect too. There was always, though, a longer, melancholic line, as well as typical outbursts of almost Schoenbergian (op.11) violence, Hodges drawing out mightily impressive sonority from the bass of his instrument.
The second half opened with Busoni’s reworking of Mozart’s extraordinary Schoenbergian Gigue, KV 574 and the fandango – which, for some reason, Busoni dubbed a bolero – from the third-act finale to The Marriage of Figaro. The first gigue section was taken very fast indeed, anything but ‘Romantic’; indeed, it emerged as very much in keeping with what we had heard in the first half. The ‘bolero’ offered relative, but only relative, relaxation, still very much in constructivist, even Bauhaus, mode: most intriguingly so in its Klemperer-on-speed Sachlichkeit. The final ‘variation’ of the gigue material offered an ambiguous, ambivalent response to some of the Lisztian tendencies announced by Debussy. It seemed all over in a flash, leaving one wishing for more – not unreasonably so, in the case of the ever-neglected Busoni.
The 2011 Gigue Machine is, according to the composer, a ‘fantasia in two parts’, its counterpoint ‘linear and sonorous against something else that is very staccato’. To my ears, it sounded, both as work and performance, closer to Stravinsky than Variations from the Golden Mountain, but also in context drew upon the example of Mozart’s – and Mozart-Busoni’s – Gigue as well as Bach. Harmonies, again probably partly as a well-nigh unavoidable consequence of pianistic tradition, sometimes suggested German music from Bach to Schoenberg. And of course, there were the wonderful, machine-like ostinatos so typical and, again, so individual in their reinvention.
Then came the remaining six Debussy Etudes. The seventh sounded as a whirlwind, within which a diatonic heart was permitted, encouraged, or enabled to beat. ‘Pour les agréments’ was, quite properly, more yielding, even charming. Debussy’s famed ambiguity came to the fore once again, though there was nothing remotely fuzzy to Hodges’s pianism. Virtuosity was still required – and received. Likewise in ‘pour les notes répétées’, though I wondered whether we might have heard more at the softer end of the dynamic range. Musical process was at any rate abundantly clear and meaningful. The sphinx-like Debussy came once again before our ears in ‘pour les sonorités opposées’, wonder on show at the exploration of harmonies – and pianistic harmonies at that. Ghosts of Tristan occasionally made themselves heard, but so did premonitions of so much of what was to come later in the twentieth century. A note of whimsy was struck in the eleventh study, albeit underpinned by something wordlessly deeper. Beguiling tone and a willingness always to yield were crucial here. ‘Pour les accords’ was duly climactic, Debussy’s knowingly cruel demands seeming very much to form as well the material as well as to bind apparently disparate earlier tendencies together. As an encore, and with a nod to Birtwistle’s initial intention to call Gigue Machine ‘Bunch of Bagatelles’, we heard Beethoven’s op.126 no.3, structure and apparent simplicity very much to the fore, without precluding sentiment or fantasy.