RECORDING OF THE MONTH Kenneth HESKETH (b. 1968) Through Magic Casements, Horae, Notte Oscura, Japanese Miniatures - Clare Hammond (piano) rec. 2015 BIS SACD [DC] Awards await this remarkable release.
Kenneth HESKETH (b. 1968) Through Magic Casements (2008) [4:39] Horae (pro Clara) (2011/12) [42;08] Notte Oscura (2002) [6:48] Three Japanese Miniatures (2002) [12:12] Clare Hammond (piano) rec. August 2015, Cardiff University Concert Hall, Wales. BIS BIS-2193 SACD [66:37]
Kenneth Hesketh has yet to become a true household name but he has been forging a respected career for many years, and has appeared before on the pages of MWI in an interview with Christopher Thomas back in 2007, and two albums: Theatre of Attractions and Wunderkammer. His “fierce intelligence, breadth of knowledge and the incisiveness of his imagination” is brought together with Clare Hammond’s remarkable pianism on this BIS SACD, and what seems likely to become one of the contemporary piano music records of the year.
Don’t be put off by the fistfuls of notes that open the programme. Through Magic Casements may take a couple of listens, but its references to the images in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale provide enough clues to the contrasts between “the vibrant song of the nightingale with [the poet’s] own fevered state.” Mix birdsong and piano and there will be inevitable comparisons with Messiaen, but if you know the latter you’ll also know this is something coming from an entirely different, and not entirely comfortable place.
Carrying on with the shorter works, Notte Oscura is a transcription from a segment of Hesketh’s opera The Overcoat, and while it has plenty of tremulously descriptive touches referring to “our Northern cold”, the effect is often pleasantly post-Romantic. Another collection that takes its starting points in material from another work for chamber orchestra, the Three Japanese Miniatures connect to Japanese folk tales. Descriptive and programmatic, these pieces are packed with atmosphere and drama, and for music with relatively short duration they have a feeling of momentous content and tapestry-like range of image and colour.
The main act here is Horae (pro Clara), a series of twelve short pieces written for Clare Hammond over a two-year period, and as a whole forming a “breviary or book of hours.” Clare’s booklet notes refer to the “prodigious demands” made on the performer, not only “in terms of technical proficiency and physical stamina, but also in the sheer breadth of colour, variety of articulation and the intensity of rhetoric that is required.” Hesketh has described his music as ‘detailed and labyrinthine’ and as having ‘dense textures that are lucid and transparent’, and there are few words better for getting a hold on what to expect here as a first impression. I don’t always find myself in tune with this kind of uncompromising approach as I found out with Michael Finnissy’s The History of Photography in Sound, but with Hesketh there is a sense of poetic contact which I miss in Finnissy. Rather than turn his pieces into lengthy tracts, Hesketh engages through compact argument. You may not always agree with this composer’s point of view in musical terms, but by the time you have gathered your wits into some kind of repost he will have wrong-footed you with a gesture or inflection of sonority and line that once again has you interested and focussed. There are pieces that refer to the poetry of Yeats, or which overtly explore the composer’s “fascination with automata and his own concept of ‘unreliable machines.’” The ninth movement has a performance instruction, ‘like intertwining chime clocks’, and it’s not hard to imagine oneself in a nocturnal and haunted factory of wilful timepieces. The longest piece is the Molto misterioso, desolate twelfth, to which is added the quote ‘for now we see through a glass, darkly’. Dark, low sonorities and dynamic extremes create tensions that are not resolved by slow developments that commence in the higher registers. Slowness is challenged by passages of threatening violence and spectacular virtuosity, but this change in the landscape turns out to be a distracting detail – a golden-section carbuncle or knotted swirl in the blackened lines of a burnt stump, or the stump itself in the charred vastness of a dangerously smoking and tragic field.
With BIS’s superlative sound, Clare Hammond’s amazing performances and Kenneth Hesketh’s challenging but rewarding musical language, I am indeed sure this is destined to be one of the contemporary/piano discs of 2016.
Musicweb-International, May 2016
Hesketh's music is challenging and complex, intricate and detailed. Textures are invariably of the utmost clarity; even when hectically rapid toccata-like passages occur the outlines of the gestures are never blurred. Harmonically very free, the music occasionally recalls Dutilleux (with whom the composer studied), and Messiaen, but these impressions are fleeting at best, and are mostly suggested by the translucent color of texture on the one hand and restless rhythmic incisiveness on the other. Hesketh speaks of singing in the cavernous Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool as a boy as having made an indelible impression on him, and the emphasis on resonance, echo effects and a finely judged sense of what works in hugely resonant conditions (either acoustic or created by the piano's sustain pedals) is a constant feature of these pieces. The twelve short pieces that make up the 'Breviary for Clare' explore every type of intricate patterning, often imposing considerable technical demands on the performer, and many evoke complicated miniature mechanisms on the verge of going out of control or pushed to the limits of performance - a recurring idea in the composer's music borne out by the evocatively theatrical performance directions. This kind of precisely etched grotesquerie of image pervades all these pieces, leaving an unsettling impression overall.
Records International, June 2016
A stream of CDs arrives each month on our desk, with a recent eye-catching new recording from the Swedish label, BIS, which – in its clean, sharp, immaculate packaging – often champions contemporary music. Kenneth Hesketh (b. 1968) is a British composer who seems to have developed an unparalleled sound-world: a modern impressionism of unceasing invention; of suspension and movement; of layers of sound – varying from (as in the 12-movement work, Horae (PRO CLARA) (Breviary for Clare) from 2012) the sound of “the tiniest humming bird” and an “evening full of linnet’s wings” – to a desolate Molto misterioso, ‘for now we see through a glass, darkly’. Performed by Royal Philharmonic Society Award-winner, Clare Hammond (she secured this year’s prestigious RPS ‘Young Artist’ category, and is also a dedicatee of Hesketh’s work) the new disc*, produced by BIS engineer, Robert Suff, must rank as one of the most thought-provoking productions of new music to have appeared in recent years.
Classical Music Editor
Quartely Review, May 2016
As one of today’s most successful composers of this younger generation, Kenneth Hesketh has piano music that is unusually expressive and multi-layered– and Clare Hammond, who premiered his work, is an exceptional interpreter. The record is named after his twelve-part time-based series named Horae, subtitled Breviary for Clare (written for Clare Hammond).
Hesketh shows that it is possible to create new, evocative music within the fairly traditional new piano music idiom. Under the seemingly generic surface of Hesketh’s music, we have all sorts of processes – sometimes moving at the same time, but usually beginning at different times. There is drama and there are many layers– overall there are multidimensional sounds. Hammond brings these through with concentration and refinement.
May 5th, 2016
Horae (pro Clara):
"However it was in the most intimate moments that we were truly mesmerised as Clare Hammond’s two movements from Kenneth Hesketh’s ‘Horae’ left the audience transfixed."
Wednesday 21st November, 2012
South Wales Argus
'Another winner who chose new music was Clare Hammond. Kenneth Hesketh's Horae (pro clara) is named for the twelve goddesses of Greek mythology who personified the hours between sunrise and sunset. Of the sequence of pieces written - as the title suggests - especially for her, Hammond played 'Auge' (daybreak) and 'Anatolia' (dawn). She found a crystalline beauty in the figurations of the former and brought out the latter's contrasts of colouring and texture with much flair.
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
'She played three miniatures by Kenneth Hesketh from his 12-piece cycle Horae (pro clara), intense sometimes shadowy music that explores emotional and colouristic possibilities. This is Hammond's music, written for her, the ordering of pieces her choice; this particular triptych (I-III-II) made one keen to hear the cycle complete…
St James's Piccadilly, London
In a later recital, Clare Hammond offered a piano odyssey, with pieces inspired by ancient Greece. Hammond's sensibilities were already apparent in Szymanowski's Métopes, Op.29 and Satie's three Gnossiennes, but it was in the premiere of Kenneth Hesketh's Horae that sheshowed serious mettle. In Greek mythology there was a goddess for each hour, and this sequence of 12 pieces, a modern book of hours, builds to a very substantial 37 minutes. Hammond displayed its scintillating passagework and poetic calm with great flair.
Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham
Tuesday 9 July 2013