Saturday 7 November 2020

A different part of the soul: Nicolas Hodges on recording the music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Beethoven for his latest disc

Nicolas Hodges and Sir Harrison Birtwistle at the recording session for A Bag of Bagatelles
Nicolas Hodges and Sir Harrison Birtwistle at the recording session for A Bag of Bagatelles

On 6 November 2020, pianist Nicolas Hodges had a new disc out on Wergo. Called A Bag of Bagatelles it intriguingly pairs the music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle with music by Beethoven including the Bagatelles Op. 126, Fantasy Op. 77 and Allegretto WoO 61. Nicolas enjoys a close relationship with Birtwistle and on the disc, Birtwistle's Variations from the Golden Mountain, Gigue Machine and Dance of the metro-gnome were all recorded in the presence of the composer. I caught up with Nicolas by Zoom to find out more about the programme and about his strong relationship to contemporary music.

Nicolas has already recorded a disc of Birtwistle's solo piano music (The Axe Manual), and this new disc includes the three remaining solo piano pieces that he had not recorded which meant that the Birtwistle had to be paired with something as there is not enough for a complete disc. Beethoven's Bagatelles Op.126 seemed an obvious choice, for one thing Birtwistle said that he modelled his Variations from the Golden Mountain on Beethoven's Bagatelles. Also, as well as fitting, Nicolas had played the Bagatelles recently and he describes the Beethoven Allegretto, also on the disc, as a strange piece! 

Nicolas did not really think of the Beethoven centenary, the plan was in fact for the disc to be issued in 2018 but unfortunately it took rather longer. But having programmed the Beethoven, Nicolas found it refreshing to be able to use that classical part of his repertoire alongside the contemporary, as the two are usually separated on disc. In live concerts he likes to mix and match, but on CD this is not usually possible as record companies prefer single composer discs. But because the new disc contains only music by one living composer, and because of the Beethoven centenary, A Bag of Bagatelles seems to have slipped through the net, and Nicolas hopes to do more such mixes in the future.

Whilst Nicolas agrees with my comment that perhaps his classical and contemporary repertoires use different parts of the brain and of the body, he points out that he finds Birtwistle a very classical composer. To play Birtwistle's music you have to be in control of the mechanical aspects of your performance, and this is not a different technique to that used in the classical repertoire. What you have to do is bend your classical pre-conceptions about dissonance and complexity in music. And he qualifies his earlier agreement with the comment that performing contemporary music does not so much use a different part of the brain as a different part of the soul.

Nicolas has what he calls a very unintellectual interest in Birtwistle's music which struck him and moved him in an earthy elemental way, it gripped him. Nicolas first heard Birtwistle's music when he was around 16, and he was lucky to be able to see scores of Birtwistle's music early on, and found it carefully made and unusual. He sees something of himself in the music, and once in the composer's presence he described himself as a 'kindred spirit' and Birtwistle agreed.

Also, looking at music by other contemporary composers, Nicolas could see that the different layout of Birtwistle's scores reflected the difference in the composer's mind. And Nicolas feels that this is another link to Beethoven, as his music was laid out differently to that of his contemporaries.

Nicolas has previously recorded a disc of Birtwistle's solo piano music, The Axe Manual, alongside his work for piano and percussion, which means that with the new disc he has recorded all of Birtwistle's solo piano music. Nicolas has also recorded Birtwistle's two piano concertos (Slow Frieze and Antiphonies). Of the solo piano music, there are three major pieces, Harrisons Clocks (on the earlier disc), and Gigue Machine (which Nicolas premiered in 2012) and Variations from the Golden Mountain (which Nicolas premiered in 2014) on the new disc. The other solo pieces are all smaller, and relatively occasional such as the work which was written for Pierre Boulez, Ostinato with melody. This is only five minutes long but is finely made and easily programmed with other Birtwistle works.

Nicolas Hodges and Sir Harrison Birtwistle at the recording session for A Bag of Bagatelles
Nicolas Hodges and Sir Harrison Birtwistle
at the recording session for A Bag of Bagatelles
Nicolas first played Beethoven's Bagatelles Op. 126 in 1993 at St George's Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol, though he cannot now remember why! There are in fact three sets of bagatelles, but all three sets are rather different. The others are more fragmentary, whereas Nicolas sees Opus 126 as a six-movement work. He finds it an interesting form and rather magnificent. 

He finds planning programmes great fun, and carefully plans classical and contemporary repertoire in his recitals but, as says, 'the best laid plans'! There are certain composers that he wants to devote time to, and certain projects he wants to bring about, but what actually comes to pass can be rather random. Often, discs happen because someone from the music world says you ought to put this on disc. It is all to do with relationships, the various collaborations with friends, agents and agencies.

When it comes to contemporary music, with some composers the piece just works, there is nothing to say about their writing for the piano and Nicolas can just play it. With other composers, they might have written a wonderful piece, but Nicolas might not find it playable and if he wasn't happy with a piece then he would not play it again. This is not just about difficultly. Every pianist has different capabilities, so some pieces line up and some don't. Nicolas cannot play everything, and he comments that it would be boring if he could, he has difficulties with some pieces.

It is rare for him to have an input into the compositional process. One recent exception was a new solo piano work by Rebecca Saunders based on her piano concerto. Nicolas and Rebecca Saunders had a Zoom session in which he played portions of the concerto to her, and he found it wonderful to be part of this creative process.

How a pianist plays a new piece makes a difference too. If they can simply play the new piece through this affects the creative process compared to another pianist who might take longer to digest to material. With Harrison Birtwistle's music, everything is about tempo and time. For the new disc, Nicolas rehearsed intensively with the composer, a process he describes as fun but scary. Throughout the process, Birtwistle would be making quick decisions on the basis of what Nicolas was playing; this surprised Nicolas as he worried that Birtwistle's confident decisions might be too quick. In the Variations the changes were all about adding pauses. Nicolas found Birtwistle's approach very sculptural, time and space are important and how the material unfolds.

When he was younger Nicolas studied composition and wrote music from the age of 11 to 24, though he does not describe himself as a composer now. He did not have a huge output and did not have many performances. He was simply very interested in contemporary music, playing it, writing it and writing about it; lots of intensive activity around contemporary music. And, in fact, when he suddenly stopped writing music it was something of a relief.

He is unsure whether this experience makes him see the contemporary pieces he plays in a different way, but composers do tell him that he plays the music like he understands from the inside. But Nicolas is unsure whether this comes from an analytical ability or simply from living with the music.

Nicolas was lucky to get chances young and was immersed in contemporary repertoire early. Around the age of 11 or 12 he heard the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen at school, and by the age of 16 he was playing the music of Pierre Boulez and studying with Morton Feldman. Nicolas never particularly wanted to exclude anything, to him contemporary music was important; this wasn't political, he simply found the music of now, and just so exciting.

When I ask about his musical heroes he demurs, saying that he would have to think about that but that there are so many composers whom he admires. To Nicolas, anyone who writes contemporary music is a hero, it is a stupid thing to do as it is both economic death and concert going death. Not only are first performances tricky but repeat performances are very difficult. And in many ways, Nicolas feels that he is lucky, he is aware that he has had the time to be able to play contemporary music.

Nicolas is even more trenchant when it comes to the people who are not heroes. He is very dismissive of the programming of the big multinational record companies, whose output Nicolas sees as being mediocre, by the yard.  He feels that the companies are wrong in the tendency to equivalence music which might be seen as cross-over, with classical, and with contemporary classical. There is a lot of music in the world that is wonderful, but it is not all the same thing and should not be presented as such, in a way which Nicolas sees as dishonest. Performers in different genres are masters of their craft, but we should understand that there are differences. This leads us into a discussion about the state of music in the UK about which Nicolas is worried.

He has been based in Germany for 15 years (he is currently a professor at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart). The move was not deliberate and he did not think that he was emigrating, yet proved quite easy..

Nicolas still misses the UK, particularly artists and friends, the musicians he grew up with when he was in his 20s. He is much more based in Germany than the UK. He made enough of a career in the UK that people remember him, and he makes annual appearances here, but he feels far away from the musical scene in the UK.

Nicolas Hodges (Photo Eric Richmond)
Nicolas Hodges (Photo Eric Richmond)

Nicolas is due to be in Porto in Portugal next week, performing Philippe Manoury's Passacaille pour Tokyo (1994) with the Remix Ensemble, conductor Peter Rundel, at the Casa da Musica in Porto but he is not sure whether this concert is happening, and his is due to return to Porto later in the year for concerts of music by Wolfgang Rihm.

Coming up next year is a big recording project devoted to the music of Bill Hopkins (1943-1981) who was a pupil of Olivier Messiaen and of Jean Barraqué (1928-1973). Hopkins only wrote eight or nine mature pieces, and by the time he died he had almost stopped composers because of the lack of performances. Nicolas was introduced to Hopkins' music by Paul Griffiths and Nicolas regards Hopkins' largest piano piece Etudes en série (1965-72) as a magnificent piano cycle which he played in the 1990s (he gave the work's first complete performance in Newcastle in 1997). The new project is for a complete Hopkins' edition and means that, unusually for contemporary music, Nicolas is getting to return to a work; usually you just play something once (Nicolas was lucky that Elliott Carter's Dialogues, which were written for him in 2003, were works he could play 20 ro 30 times).

He has not played Hopkins work much since the 1990s, but it is still in his fingers and he is finding a new way into it. It is a wonderful opportunity; he has been treating himself as a student, looking at what he did before with the music and picking it apart.

Another large scale plan is one postponed from this year, the premiere at the Lucerne Festival of Rebecca Saunders' piano concerto, a huge work.

 A Bag of Bagatelles
Beethoven: Fantasy Op. 77
Birtwistle: Variations from the Golden Mountain
Beethoven: Bagatelles Op. 126
Birtwistle: Gigue machine
Beethoven: Allegretto in B minor, WOo 61
Birtwistle: Dance of the metro-gnome
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
WERGO WER 6810 2 

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