A few days ago one of the music critics of a very prestigious newspaper confessed himself so bowled over by a concert that he was lost for words and that all he could do was give it 5 stars. Now, two things suggest themselves. Firstly, why feel guilty about that? Secondly, it is quite a rare stance indeed amongst critics. The late Edward Greenfield, the long-time critic of another newspaper, once said to me that he wished he could be called an appreciator , an attitude he told me roundly attacked by, amongst others, a friend of his, a noted American Critic, who seemed to feel that to write an article without finding something wanting was an abdication of a critic’s duty to maintain ‘standards’. It is a siren voice but luckily I only have to remind myself that this is a Diary in which I can say as many times as I like that I have enjoyed something totally and then the other sort can be waved aside and left to find their own weird pleasure in playing at Beckmessers.
This is just as well since Clare Hammond’s debut recital at the Museum as far as I was concerned was of a quality that simply destroyed any attempt of a ‘balanced’ response. I have said this before but it is manifestly true that in the history of this country’s music there have never been so many British pianists of international quality around at one time and many of them have appeared at the Museum over the years. To that roll call can now be added Clare Hammond.
To my shame, I had only vaguely registered her presence on the scene and the CV on the programme perhaps showed why. She would appear to be quite simply a polymath with immensely wide interests. Many years ago I can remember a commentary that came with a CD featuring the great Claudio Arrau describing how in his youth he had embarked on such things as a study of philosophy, apparently believing that great piano playing arose not just from fleet fingers but also involved a deep understanding of the human condition. One thing is for sure, Clare Hammond has an instinct for constructing a deeply satisfying programme, the features of which are delivered with succinct introductions that hit nail after nail on the head. I particularly admired the suggestion that in the last item ,the gigantic beast that is Rachmaninov’s 2nd Sonata , we should just go with the force. In a surging performance like this that was what was needed . It was played with such bravura that one understood the notice the pianist had once received describing her as a ‘dazzling athlete’ . I wondered what athletic discipline the metaphor was suggesting. The pole vault perhaps? However, it was not all riveting virtuosity. The composer’s heartfelt melancholy was also most memorably conveyed.
Before that last item we had had picture in miniature of her range. The concert started with a Haydn Piano Sonata, No. 58. Now, there has been a movement to establish this part of the composer’s output as unjustly neglected . It has been a movement that I have not hitherto thought particularly convincing, not finding it music that particularly sticks in the mind and feeling it perhaps rather narrow in range. I am sure I am wrong and there were many moments in this performance that suggested why that might be so. Particularly in the opening variations this artist found a range of utterance and colour that suggested this to be music of considerable subtlety.
That subtlety and the scope generally of the playing was even more to the fore in the performance of a number of Debussy’s Preludes. I have rarely heard such simply wonderful playing of this music, at least in the setting of this gallery. The tonal range was amazing in Sails and Dead Leaves, the virtuosity of Fireworks and The Hills of AnaCapri equally extraordinary and we were well and truly enveloped by the most famous of the set , The Submerged Cathedral , with its mystery and its great surges of sound. As I listened to this, I wondered where I had heard it performed with this power before and then it came to me. Some years ago Ronan O’Hora was a frequent visitor to Leicester and he got a similarly seemingly effortless range of sound and colour out of the Museum Steinway, something that could not always be guaranteed with some other pianists. Well, lo and behold, it would appear from the programme that he was Clare Hammond’s tutor for a while. I now better understand why in my youth so much used to be made of pianists who had been the pupils of the very last of Liszt’s protégés. It seemed so tenuous a link at the time but perhaps something of unique value can be passed on generation by generation after all.
Whatever, the clear fact is we really must hear more of Clare Hammond in Leicester, preferably in a full recital, and to judge from the ovation she received I am certainly not alone in wishing that.
Sat. 10th November 7.30 DMH
A Unique occasion, in which to commemorate almost to the day the 100th anniversary of the ending of the Great War, Leicester Bach Choir, Leicester Philharmonic Choir, Leicester Chorale and Leicester Cathedral Choristers, The Bardi Orchestra and soloists perform under Claus Efland what has over the last nearly 60 years become recognised worldwide as one of the greatest and most moving choral works in the repertoire, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.