Ian Pace’s recital of English piano music at the Holywell Music Room was a virtuosic showcase of overwhelming proportions. Renowned for his ambitious programming and championing of contemporary composition, this recital was no exception, featuring works by Newton Armstrong, Nigel McBride, Rebecca Saunders, Brian Ferneyhough (whose complete works Pace is currently recording), and Michael Finnissy (whose complete works he has previously performed). While Finnissy’s monumental English Country Tunes was the technical apex of the programme, perhaps the most thought-provoking offerings came from Armstrong and McBride, composers working at City University London and Oxford University respectively.
A thread running consistently throughout the programme, from Ferneyhough’s Quirl through Saunders’ Crimson to Finnissy’s Country Tunes, is that of an underlying violence, both above and beneath the surface of the scores. In an interview with Pace in 2009, the composer spoke of witnessing the 1977 Lewisham riots as he worked on Country Tunes. This unrest serves as a backdrop to the work, dismantling “English Tourist Board” stereotypes of Britain from the inside out. The Mephistophelean bass writing beautifully complemented the painful upper register focus of Crimson, the two works presenting different kinds of brutality. The physicality of Crimson, tone clusters interspersed with piano lid slams, conveyed a savagery that was undercut in Country Tunes by moments bordering on the humorous. Pace played up to the technical demands of the music, exaggerating the physical exertions demanded of the pianist with excessive gestures: a wry sense of humour was perhaps the only British stereotype left intact by the end of the recital.
From the publicity material to the programme notes for the concert, the emphasis was placed on the physical complexity of the programme. Images of McBride’s Juncture I changing time signature in every bar were placed next to moments from Crimson laid out across three staves, inviting the audience to marvel at the pianist’s dexterity and technical prowess. However, while the music is undoubtedly difficult to play, as Finnissy stated of Country Tunes, ‘What’s complex is probably the idea’ that underlies the collection. This is true of every work on the programme: Ferneyhough’s Quirl: A Study in Self-Similar Rhythms investigates the notion of music as a semi-spatial entity; McBride describes Juncture I as ‘an exploration of binary opposites — the real discovery being that there are no binary oppositions to be had’; Armstrong’s Making One Leaf Transparent and Then Another exploits the piano’s resonance with live electronics to explore the idea of a borderline at which point a “note” becomes a “sonority”.
Meditative, sonorous, and still, Making One Leaf Transparent provided a much-needed contrast to the rest of the works, seeming to evoke the image of a single hanging leaf, rotating slowly in a light that imbues it with a translucent, mercurial quality. This was the only piece where Pace’s flamboyant gestures seemed at odds with the material, detracting from the intense suspension of sound. Although it would have been useful to have a better sound balance to allow for a more nuanced appreciation of the live electronics, Making One Leaf Transparent was an understated highlight of the evening, throwing a new light on the more atmospheric moments of Country Tunes. McBride’s Juncture I provided an effective counterpart to the calm of the Armstrong, gaining in momentum as the piece progressed. While starting a little slowly, it eventually built to match the intellectual and physical virtuosity of the Ferneyhough that it preceded.
Traversing over 35 years of composition, Pace’s programme provided an opportunity for an exhausting exhibition of technical ability. While this was without doubt impressive, a greater contrast in tone between works might have enhanced the overall effect to allow for a display of different kinds of virtuosity, as between the Armstrong and McBride. Nonetheless this was a mesmerising recital, bringing unexpected nuances and subtleties out of all the pieces performed.
For more information about Ian Pace’s forthcoming recitals, please visit his website.