Fantastic reviews for Robert Saxton’s Toccata Classics CD of Piano Music

Here at UYMP, we are delighted that reviews have been flooding in for Robert Saxton’s CD of Piano Music, performed by Clare Hammond, from Gramophone, The Sunday Times, BBC Music Magazine, Planet Hugill, the British Music Society, Europadisc and The Art Music Lounge.

Robert Hugill, from Planet Hugill, accounts that this CD features ‘two works from the 1980s Chacony for Piano Left Hand and Sonata for Piano with three more recent pieces, the suites Hortus Musicae, Book 1 and Book 2, and Lullaby for Rosa.’

Saxton’s 1998 Chacony for Piano Left hand was ‘written in 1988 for the Aldeburgh Festival and premiered by Leon Fleisher (who at that time had lost the use of his right hand)’. This work, Kate Wakeling from BBB Music magazine reports, ‘opens to cautious whole-tone scales before swirling with dense and majestic counterpoint and receives an exhilarating reading from Hammond’. Such playing is even more impressive as Lynn René Bayley from The Art Music Lounge describes it as ‘one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever heard written for left hand only.’

The Sonata for Piano is the earliest piece on the disc, dating from 1981, and was, as Pwyll ap Siôn from Gramophone writes, ‘written in memory of Béla Bartók’. ‘It starts with a mercurial main theme which darts around animatedly, pausing for short gasps of breath before surging forwards. The sonata ends with stasis and movement collapsing into one another in a frantic flourish of rising scales and dense chords. That Hammond succeeds on both counts is testimony to her musicianship but also to Saxton’s ability to write effectively with performer and instrument in mind.’ Hugill sees this work, in comparison to the Chacony for Piano Left Hand to be ‘more obviously serial… intense and conenctrated’

The premiere recordings of Hortus Musicae, Book 1 and 2 are recounted within the Sunday Times to be ‘”musical gardens”’ which ‘variously invoke what he calls a “sacred space”, taking inspiration from Marvell, Auden, the Song of Solomon and even Proust, in the beautiful reminiscences of Beech Bank (A la recherche).’

Hugill recounts how ‘Book 1 was written for Clare Hammond and commissioned by Ian Ritchie for the 2013 City of London Festival. It consists of five pieces which examine various metaphysical gardens, The Garden of Dreams, The Garden of Time, The Singing Garden, the Infinte Garden, the Garden Dances. Saxton is adept at creating complex yet magical sound-worlds, the very transparency of the writing adding to the luminous quality.’ Through listening to this collection, Siôn discerns that ‘scale-like patterns in contrary motion permeate No 1, repetition and variation are heard in No 2, the contrapuntal elaboration of a quasi-plainchant melody is explored in No 3, modal and pentatonic combinations are fused in No 4, while No 5 draws on all elements in a playful dancelike peroration.’

Hugill again relates that ‘Book 2 was similarly written for Clare Hammond, this time premiered at the 2016 Presteigne Festival where Saxton was composer in residence. The suite consists of seven pieces, The Flowers appear on the Earth, Light on the Water Garden, The Garden of Changing Perspective, Beech Bank (a la recherche), Light on the Hedgerows, The Garden at Dusk, Hortus Animae Alis Fugacis. The gardens here are perhaps more descriptive, but Saxton uses a remarkable number of musical means to explore his ideas.’ Europadisc reports that ‘highlights’ from this Book ‘include the luminous ‘Light on the Water Garden’, with its shimmering figuration, and ‘Beech Bank (à la recherche)...’, whose snatches of Haydn, Chopin and Donizetti are incorporated with a facility reminiscent of Saxton’s teacher Berio. The final movement is an unorthodox fugue whose title (which translates as ‘The Garden of the Swift-Winged Spirit’) suggests both flight and chase, its ending gradually receding from the listener.’

Overall, these two collections are described by Wakeling as ‘enchanting: at one playful and serious, exploratory, intellectually vigorous and, very often, deeply poignant’; by Bayley as ‘dynamic and ever-evolving and within the Sunday Times as displaying Saxton’s ‘craftsmanly rigour and a wide-ranging fantasy’.

Bayley relates that ‘the CD ends with Lullaby for Rosa, a short piece written for Clare Hammond’s new daughter. It’s quite tonal, in fact a lovely little ballad, played with piquant tenderness by the pianist.’ This piece to Wakeling is ‘a testament to the musical understanding shared between performer and composer’.

Even, according to Europadisc, ‘the detailed autobiographical and musical notes from Saxton himself are a considerable bonus.’

Saxton and Hammond together, Hugill states, ‘make a striking whole’. Chris Bye from the British Music Society, describes how, within this CD, ‘a penetrative insight and outstanding fingering certainly pay dividends in these interpretations of scores conceived by Britain’s highly-respected composer, Robert Saxton.’ ‘All in all’, Bayley concludes, ‘a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a musical iconoclast’.

(19 Jul 2018)

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