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Piano events at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

This year's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) featured a plethora of piano recitals, including a two-piano day. Andy Hamilton paid a visit. Recitals by Philip Thomas/Mark Knoop,

Geneviève and Brigitte Foccroulle, and Ian Pace/Frederik Croene (two pianos) Fujikura 2nd Piano Concerto, Diamond Dust, Ellen Ugelvik.

Huddersfield’s remarkable two-piano day saw three recitals. The first was a series of duets on one piano by Philip Thomas and Mark Knoop, featuring sets of short pieces by Laurence Crane and Peter Ablinger, plus Cage’s Winter Music and Christian Wolff’s Duet I, and quasi a due by Kunsu Shim, a Japanese composer new to me. Even grizzled HCMF veterans found this recital – consisting of 'music that is stripped of music', according to the programme – a tough listen. Winter Music – at 15 minutes, and so with Shim’s, the only longer piece here – reminded me that Cage, like Anthony Braxton, inspired composers and musicians to transcend his own achievement, if not his originality. Ablinger’s series of pieces Ohne Titel, and Laurence Crane’s series of Duets, were equally stripped bare. Crane’s Duet No 4 instructed the pianists to 'Sing!', which they did with manly gusto – or at least, vocalised wordlessly. Crane’s ensemble music, heard later in the festival, was quite magical, so maybe I am missing something with his piano pieces, which came across as drier and less involving.

The two-piano duo of Ian Pace and Frederick Croene offered the highlight of the day’s events: Evan Johnson’s very beautiful 'atendant, souffrir’, lists, little stars. (Though the composer’s programme note was a contender for Private Eye’s 'Pseud’s Corner': 'The piece begins with a proposal for how to proceed, and declines to accept it. Instead, a series of zero points are reached, inhabited and abandoned...') Hovering behind the fragmentary material, the composer writes, is Philopoctus de Caserta’s 14th century motet 'En atendant souffrir m’estuet grief payne' – hence I assume the Old French spelling of 'atendant'. The 14-minute piece was a spacious, tremulous delight, consistently piano with lots of silences – more of a summer piece maybe, given the struggles of the coughers in the audience to keep quiet. Adam de la Cour’s Con-join was an example of theatre of the absurd, a 'bondage' piece with the duo’s inside wrists tied together in fluffy red handcuffs. The struggle, initially a matter of synchronising when to play, became more like a staged sword fight. 'The first movement is a homage to Chico Marx, the second a romantic arrangement of Mexican wrestling movie soundtracks', the composer writes – soundtracks of course very familiar to readers of International Piano.

Michael Finnissy’s Third Symphonic Etude was a deconstruction of virtuosity from Beethoven to Schumann via Czerny. Its twisting, distorting temporal effects, between and within the two piano parts – especially in the warping, deranged Romanticism of the slow section – were totally compelling. There were also two solo pieces. Frederick Croene performed Enno Poppe’s wonderfully titled seven-minute Theme with 840 Variations. (I counted only 839. Only joking.) Ian Pace performed Marco Stroppa’s Ninnananna and Moai from Miniature Estrose, tremulous too but with a much wider dynamic range, with books placed under the pedals, I assume to restrict their dynamic range.

Geneviève and Brigitte Foccroulle’s two-piano duo offered a largely Belgian programme, featuring Henri Pousseur’s Mobile (1958) and works by younger Belgian composers new to me, plus Frederic Rzewski’s modern classic, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues – original lyrics 'When I die, don't bury me at all/Just hang me up on the spoolroom wall/Place a knotter in my hand/So I can spool in the Promised Land'. This was an involving performance of a synthesis of jazz and contemporary composition; it ought to be a modern classic, heard much more in the concert hall. (Rzewski taught at Liège Conservatoire where Pousseur was director.) Pousseur’s Mobile was the other substantial piece in the programme, though here as elsewhere, this composer promises more than he delivers – the open form and total serialism sounding merely dated.

Later in the festival was the world premiere of Piano Concerto No 2 Diamond Dust, by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura. The soloist was Ellen Ugelvik, with the Oslo Sinfonietta. The composer explains, rather unhelpfully, that 'I was often thinking of ice whilst writing the piece. Light is shining on big blocks of ice and many small particles of ice'. A bottom 'A' on the piano triggers a swarm-like response from the ensemble, drawing on the harmonic field, the composer explains – at least, that’s the delightful theory. In practice, the result was a colourful, accessible piece whose welcome wore thin, as its aimless noodling, and pretty, pointless virtuosity degenerated into what Wagner called 'effects without causes'. There was no feeling of every note counting, and emotional climaxes were unearned. Fujikura moved to the UK at the age of 15 to study music, and comments that when in music college, he 'did everything I could to be a film music composer'. I’d say he’s succeeded, because his concert music sounds like film music. It brought to mind Ernst Toch’s delightful comment on being told that Erich Korngold was now working for Warner Brothers: 'Korngold has always composed for Warner Brothers'.

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