On Sunday I was at King’s Place in London to renew acquaintance with an old friend, and to make at least one new one.
The old friend was Judith Weir’s The Art of Touching the Keyboard, performed by William Howard, who commissioned it in 1983. I have been very fond of this piece for nearly twenty years – which is longer than I have been fond of almost anything – but this was the first time I have heard it live. It did not disappoint. The Art of Touching the Keyboard is a 10-minute compendium of different ways pianists can strike their instrument. These range from elegant flourishes, staccato chords, gentle cantabile to violent assault of the keyboard. But this is no dry technical study but rather a witty miniature sonata which at once refers to a range of other music while at the same time occupying an utterly distinctive musical landscape. I was delighted to hear it.
The new acquaintance was Piers Hellawell’s Piani, Latebre, a set of three densely-woven pieces preceded by an opening flourish, like a movie trailer for what was to follow. ‘Piani’ means ‘layers’ and the music was always operating on a number of strata, where simple ideas combined with each other to create complex textures and a rapidly changing surface narrative. ‘Latebre’ are ‘hiding-places’ – the music full of nooks and unexpected islands of expression. The first piece was lithe and virtuosic, with an effective texture created by doubling melodic lines at the octave. The second piece switched from high, athletic gestures to hints of boogie-woogie bassline low in the piano’s range. The melodic energy was often in the left hand, a neat textural inversion. The last piece opened with delicate figuration but expanded into an extrovert middle section bestriding the whole keyboard. This subsided to a gentle, almost wistful ending. The overall effect was powerful, and weighty beyond the music’s 10-minute duration. Definitely a new favourite.
This excellent miniature recital – which also featured music by Howard Skempton and Pavel Novak – was a sparkling gem for a Sunday lunchtime. Thoughtfully programmed, immaculately played by William Howard but heard by fewer people than it deserved, it was thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking.
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