Saturday 8 July 2023

An engaging diversity & fierce intelligence: the piano music of Bernard Hughes played by Matthew Mills

Bernard Hughes: Piano Music; Matthew Mills; Divine Art
Bernard Hughes: Piano Music; Matthew Mills; Divine Art
Reviewed 8 July 2023

Featuring pieces from right across his composing career, Bernard Hughes' piano music is engagingly diverse with music ranging from the insanely difficult to that written for amateurs. Always intelligent and characterful, this is a disc of wonderful short pieces.

There is an enormous range and diversity on this disc of Bernard Hughes' piano music. Under the title Bagatelles, on the Divine Art label, pianist Matthew Mills has recorded a programme of 38 short movements. Mills is a friend of Hughes' and the composer wrote his Partita Contrafacta for Mills to premiere on the disc. Whilst some of the pieces are, to quote the  composer, 'insanely difficult', others were written specifically for amateurs to play, and the pieces range in date from that most recent Partita Contrafacta to works from the 1990s.

There is also an engaging diversity of style which gives the recital a sense of variety. It is clear that Hughes engages with music in different ways and that he has no single conception of what a piano piece might be. 

We begin with the gently lyrical Song of the Walnut, walnut being Hughes' and his wife's nickname for their son when still in utero, and there is a companion Song of the Button (referring to their daughter) later in the programme.

Song of the Walnut might lull you into a false sense of security, because Partita Contrafacta is anything but gentle, it is witty, complex and fiercely intelligent. Hughes has written a seven movement quasi-Baroque suite where each movement is based on music by a past Baroque master (L. Couperin, Bach, Purcell, Jacquet de la Guerre, Rameau, Handel, F. Couperin), but each movement is a modern dance, so we have a slow, spiky Boogie-Woogie that gets faster and faster, a delightful Baroque Tango, a weird yet robust Landler, a quietly unnerving Bolero, an engaging, richly-texture Halling, an intriguingly spiky Mazurka, and a rather traditional feeling Tarantella. Each piece has a sense of character and imagination, the work is thus full of contrasts, but Hughes cleverly links them, each begins on the final note of the previous.

Hughes' 12 Bagatelles date from the 1990s and early 2000s and the title has a clear element of irony as though short, the pieces are certainly not trifles and some are very difficult. Each has a clear style and whilst three are labelled 'Study', all of them have that study element in that each examines a particular aspect of performance or character. The first Study - for dexterity in alternating between the hands is insanely fast and exciting, and clearly very tricky to play. This is followed by character pieces that are by turns spare, fierce and then shimmering with echoes of Debussy. Study - for accuracy in the playing of double octaves is another fearsome one and here the sheer complexity of fast textures reminds one of Nancarrow! If Eros Laughs proves to be gentle filigree whilst Bog-Face is eerie and spare. Inspired by a Stevie Smith poem, Bog-Face is dedicated to Matthew Mills who gave the premiere of the complete Bagatelles26th April, 1827, morning has an intriguing sense of narrative though is based on a Schubert piece, whilst Study - for evenness in executing scale passages is another insanely fast one. Grazioso combines gentleness with rich textures, Anarcharsis Cloots is striking, whilst the final one Nocturne, based on a John Field nocturne, shimmers then evaporates.

Miniatures is a graded series of 11 short pieces moving from simple to Associate Board grade five, and some date from the 1990s when Hughes was still at school. There is no sense of looking down, these are delightful pieces, each full of character and sounding as if they might be rewarding to play. Some, like Bist du, are striking indeed, and Fughetta hardly sounds like a piece for amateurs at all, which is probably what Hughes is aiming at. The final miniature, Anarcharsis Cloots is dedicated to Hughes' son, now very much not a walnut!

Three Studies has a similar origin in that the pieces were all written for students as St Paul's Girls' School where Hughes works. The first, Count me out, begins with a deceptively simple pattern, and Hughes explains that in the studies he was interested in the procedures of Minimalism, but here he adds disruption too. The delightfully named Cornice Fish Passacaglia is a delightful thing, a passacaglia yes, but with Boogie-Woogies hints that mix spikiness with jazziness. We a back to repeat textures in False Alarm though again, Hughes delights in interrupting and disturbing the process, so the middle turns Romantic and the ending is manic.

The recital ends with three stand-alone pieces. O du Liebe meine Liebe from 2017, Strettos and Striations from 2005 and Cradle Song. O du Liebe meine Liebe is based on a Faure prelude, though the results are more astonishingly complex than you might think and Hughes produces some wonderful delicate yet complex textures. At nearly ten minutes long, Strettos and Striations is the biggest piece on the disc. Here Hughes is stricter about his use of process, beginning in a minimalist way then gathering excitement and energy till calm returns. After all this complexity, the disc ends with the eerie yet tender Cradle Song.

Pianist Matthew Mills is clearly a marvel, his technique encompasses everything that the composer throws at him, yet each short piece is beautifully realised and the resulting recital is surprisingly satisfying and completely engaging. A disc of 38 short (some under a minute) movements might not at first seem like a recital that would grab you, but thanks to Hughes' intelligence and Mills' skill, this is a recital to treasure.

Bernard Hughes - Song of the Walnut
Bernard Hughes - Partita Contrafacta
Bernard Hughes - Song of the Button
Bernard Hughes - Bagatelles
Bernard Hughes - Miniatures
Bernard Hughes - Three Studies
Bernard Hughes - O du Liebe meine Liebe
Bernard Hughes - Strettos and Striations
Bernard Hughes - Cradle Song
Matthew Mills (piano)
17/18 September 2022 and 17/18 October 2022, Wathen Hall, St Paul’s School, London
DIVINE ART DDX21107 1CD [70:53]

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