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Monday, 30 April 2018

Welcome to the Magical Garden or perhaps the Garden of Magic

Robert Saxton piano music - Clare Hammond - Toccata Classics
Robert Saxton piano music; Clare Hammond; Toccata Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 April 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The dazzling, seductive and challenging sound-world of Robert Saxton's piano music

This enterprising disc from pianist Clare Hammond on Toccata Classics is devoted to the piano music of Robert Saxton, counterpointing 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.

Robert Saxton, who is Professor of Composition at the Oxford University Faculty of Music, has an interesting pedigree. As a teenager he corresponded with and was mentored by Benjamin Britten, and was taught by Elizabeth Lutyens, Robin Holloway, Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Luciano Berio.

The disc opens with Saxton's Chacony for Piano Left Hand, written in 1988 for the Aldeburgh Festival and premiered by Leon Fleisher (who at that time had lost the use of his right hand). It is a strenuous, virtuosic piece which nonethless manages to achieve a remarkably luminous sound. Saxton's Piano Sonata is the earliest piece on the disc, dating from 1981 it was inspired by the bi-centenary of Bartok's birth that year. It is a single-movement, 10 minute piece, more obviously serial than the Chacony, creating something intense and concentrated.


Saxton's Hortus Musicae, Book 1 was written for Clare Hammond and commission 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. These gardens are by turns rhythmic, dramatic, light-filled, spare and meditative, and dancing, each different but each have a very particular quality which helps to define Saxton's art.

Hortus Musicae, 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.

Textures are by turns dramatic, dazzling, formal, and rhythmic, yet always magical. In Beech Bank he combines his meditation on memories of his grand-parents' house with remembered fragments of Haydn, Chopin and Donizetti floating out of the window, a magical and evocative experience. And the suite ends with a dazzling sort-of fuge.

The final work on the disc, Lullaby for Rosa was written in 2016 for Clare Hammond's new daughter Rosa.

The CD includes and excellent introductory essay by Saxton which combines discussion of his musical background and influences with information about the music on the disc.

Throughout Clare Hammond plays with virtuosity, power and delicacy, and is clearly in sympathy with Saxton's rather magical sound-world. But that does not mean that this is aetherial and New Age, quite the contrary and Hammond finds bravura moments and dark corners in the music too. Each of the Hortus Musicae suites forms a satisfying piece (and Saxton has carefully constructed the pitch relationships between the movements), but together they make a striking whole.

Robert Saxton (born 1953) - Chacony for Piano Left Hand (1988)
Robert Saxton - Sonata for Piano (1981)
Robert Saxton - Hortus Musicae, Book 1 (2013)
Robert Saxton - Hortus Musicae, Book 2 (2015)
Robert Saxton - Lullaby for Rosa (2016)
Clare Hammond (piano)
Recorded 21 & 22 April 2017, St John the Evangelist Church, Iffley Road, Oxford
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0458 1CD [55:44]
Available from Amazon.


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  • Out of the parlour and into the recital room - Hubert Parry's English lyrics (★★★★)  -  CD review
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