A Bag of Bagatelles: Piano Works by Birtwistle and Beethoven review – authority and clarity

4 / 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars.

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

Total authority and clarity ... Nicolas Hodges.
Total authority and clarity ... Nicolas Hodges.

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
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Nicolas Hodges: A Bag of Bagatelles album cover

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.