A Bag of Bagatelles: Piano Works by Birtwistle and Beethoven review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Nicolas Hodges
Hodges’s cool virtuosity emphasises the links between two composers of muscular intricacy and resonance

For the first 40 years of his composing career, Harrison Birtwistle wrote no major works for solo piano. There were a few miniatures, beginning with Précis, composed in 1959 for his college contemporary John Ogdon, but nothing substantial until the late 1990s, when he wrote the three-movement Harrison’s Clocks. Since then there have been two more hefty piano pieces, Gigue Machine from 2011, and the Variations from the Golden Mountain, completed three years later.

Nicolas Hodges: A Bag of Bagatelles album cover
Nicolas Hodges: A Bag of Bagatelles album cover Photograph: PR Handout

They provide the focus of Nicolas Hodge’s disc, on which he has interleaved the pieces with Beethoven – the rarely played Fantasia Op 77, and the little known B minor Allegretto WoO 61, as well as the exquisite Op 126 set of Bagatelles; the two composers share, Hodges says, a “rough-hewn strength”. That sinewy quality certainly emerges in his performance of Gigue Machine, whose dizzyingly intricate patterns, constantly renewing themselves and taking off in unexpected directions throughout the 15-minute piece, constitute a formidable virtuoso challenge and generate perhaps the most authentically pianistic music that Birtwistle has ever composed, which is delivered by Hodges with total authority and clarity.

A Bag of Bagatelles, the title of the disc, was Birtwistle’s original title for Variations from the Golden Mountain, though he finally settled on making an explicit link to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which together with Beethoven’s bagatelles he had been listening to before he composed the piece. Certainly the craggy, explosive quality of his variations, with their frieze of contrasting ideas linked by decaying resonances, has more affinity with Beethoven than Bach, and Hodges’ cool, unsentimental performance of the Op 126 pieces points up that connection. He adds a miniature as a coda, too – the Dance of the Metro-gnome, designed for a child to play, with an obbligato part for a metronome, and quintessentially, unmistakably, pure Birtwistle.

This week’s other pick

The main work on Alexandre Kantorow’s latest disc for BIS is the least often heard of Brahms’s three piano sonatas, No 2 in F sharp minor, Op 2. His performance is massively assured, as impressive for its moments of crystalline delicacy, especially in the coda of the finale, as it is for its command of the more extrovert, barnstorming moments. Kantorow begins his disc with more Brahms, the first of the Op 79 Rhapsodies, but he follows the sonata with early Bartók – the Lisztian Op 1 Rhapsody – and finally real Liszt, the 11th Hungarian Rhapsody; though he plays both immaculately, they sit uncomfortably alongside the magisterial Brahms performances.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bezuidenhout: Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 5 review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week
Bezuidenhout/Heras-Casado/Freiburger Barockorchester
(Harmonia Mundi)
Kristian Bezuidenhout and Pablo Heras-Casado make these concertos sing in readings that feel both freewheeling and profound

Erica Jeal

20, Feb, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Levit scales the heights over nine CDs, though excessive speed means musical sense is lost in some sonatas

Andrew Clements

05, Sep, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven: The Piano Trios review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Fifty years after his classic recordings with Jacqueline du Pre, Barenboim joins with his violinist son and cellist Kian Soltani to bring nuance and thoughtfulness to these seven piano trios

Andrew Clements

10, Dec, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven, Brahms review - Sokolov finds radical Beethoven
Grigory Sokolov
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CDs, 1 DVD)
He last gave a concert in the UK in 2007, so any opportunity to hear one of the world’s finest pianists is welcome, though this is uneven

Andrew Clements

07, May, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Piano Concertos and Choral Fantasy review – reissued reminder of a peerless pianist
This recording of Serkin from 1977 highlights a 20th-century great who brought musical purpose and intellectual rigour to every detail

Andrew Clements

03, Feb, 2022 @5:42 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 31 Nos 1, 2 & 3; Variations Op 34 & 35 | classical album of the week
Andreas Staier
(Harmonia Mundi, two CDs)
The three op 31 sonatas, all written in 1802, sound lean and coherent on an 1810 piano, if occasionally things feel a little too well-mannered

Andrew Clements

05, Mar, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven: The Piano Concertos: Zimerman/LSO/Rattle | Classical album of the week
Rattle conducts Zimerman and a socially distanced London Symphony Orchestra in recordings of clarity and beauty

Andrew Clements

15, Jul, 2021 @5:19 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 101 & Op 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ review – the power of Pollini | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
The pianist’s severe, analytical style engages with two of the most challenging works in the repertoire to produce a disc of compelling, muscular authority

Andrew Clements

08, Dec, 2022 @3:30 PM

Article image
Beethoven: The Late Quartets review | Andrew Clements classical album of the week
Brodsky Quartet
(Chandos, three CDs)

Andrew Clements

09, Jan, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Leonore review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the month
Petersen/Schmitt/Ivashchenko/Johannsen/Freiburg Baroque O/Jacobs
(Harmonia Mundi, two CDs)
Leonore was Beethoven’s first version of Fidelio and René Jacobs eloquently champions the earlier score in this lithe live recording

Andrew Clements

28, Nov, 2019 @3:00 PM