Richard Uttley first contacted me about the possibility of writing a new work for him shortly after he’d heard the premiere of my commission for the LSO two years ago, and he was keen that we work on a project together soon after. It was a great pleasure to receive this commission from him. We’ve been friends for a long time and I have enormous respect and admiration for Richard as a musician and champion of new music.
Solo piano can be a daunting genre for composers today; the existing repertory is so vast and varied that it can be a struggle to create idiomatic and interesting textures for the instrument that don’t sound hackneyed or impersonal. While I’ve certainly come up against this issue with this piece, I’ve tried to allow myself to embrace the works from the canon that I feel drawn to rather than attempting to completely reinvent the medium. In particular, I’ve long felt drawn to dance movements written for the instrument, especially the Mazurkas of perhaps the very greatest composer in history for solo piano, Chopin, and all of the dances commonly found in the traditional Baroque Suite for keyboard.
The first two dances I’ve selected are very contrasting: the set begins with a Mazurka as mentioned above, which along with many references to Chopin also alludes to other more Eastern European composers, such as the Romanian George Enescu, as well other Poles such as Szymanowski. This is followed by a Sarabande in an almost infinitely slow tempo, for which the inspiration was largely the movements of this genre found in Bach’s English and French Suites, which number, to my mind, among his most sombrely lyrical, vivid and harmonically richest works.
Finally, the Suite ends with a much more whimsical and playful movement in the shape of a Gigue. The fugal form of Bach’s Gigues is certainly reflected in some of the contrapuntal thinking here, but the material is also interspersed with several lyrical episodes that hark back in mood and character to passages from the Mazurka.
Dance Suite was commissioned by Richard Uttley with the generous support of the Britten-Pears Foundation, RVW and Arthur Bliss Trusts.
Richard Uttley – Bach, Matthew Kaner, and Beethoven, 7 May 2015
This was a splendid moment of light on an Election Day which… (Well, fill in the gaps: clearly the results pleased some!) In a lunchtime recital at St John’s, Smith Square, Richard Uttley offered excellent, truly thoughtful performance of works by Bach and Beethoven and the world premiere of Matthew Kaner’s Dance Suite, gently revealing dance-like affinities between them, as well as undoubted differences in method and character.
The Ouverture to Bach’s D major Partita had a bright, declamatory opening, followed by much convincing dynamic contrast. Clearly founded upon Bach’s harmonic plan, there was, moreover, a great deal of simple (!) joy to be heard and felt. The Allemande was noble, yet yielding, melody and counterpoint in fine balance – and/or dialectic. Alluringly labyrinthine, it set the situation perfectly for the Courante to come. A gently, subtly affecting Sarabande was another highlight, the Minuet a light preface to a brilliantly committed Gigue.
The two dances as yet making up Matthew Kaner’s Dance Suite are, in his words, ‘very contrasting’, a Mazurka and a Sarabande. I say ‘as yet’, because Kaner plans to add other movements in the future, including ‘a more whimsical and playful Gigue’. Bell effects in the high treble are a remarkable feature of the Mazurka. Rhythmic inflections clearly have some roots in Chopin – how could they not? – but there are hints of other Eastern European composers too, as well as Debussy, without ever quite sounding ‘like’ them. There is – and in Uttley’s performance was – a keen sense of fantasy true both to instrument and genre. The Sarabande is slow, yet moves. Harmonies always intrigued: sometimes familiar, sometimes not. I shall be very keen to hear more! Kaner’s claim of having ‘tried to allow myself to embrace the works from the canon that I feel drawn to, rather than attempting to completely reinvent the medium’ seemed to me spot on.
Beethoven’s A major Sonata, op.101, is no rarity, but I think I have heard it less frequently over the past few years than the later ‘late’ sonatas. Absence certainly made the heart grow fonder, but so did this estimable performance. Melting tone was lavished on the opening of the first movement, but never for its own sake. Chords were as finely weighted as in the Kaner Dance Suite; Uttley never forgot that this is piano music. Rhythm and harmony were held in equally fine balance. The tempo was quite daring in its leisurely nature, yet utterly convinced. Splendid contrast was effected in the second movement. March rhythms were certainly part, but only part of that; harmonic understanding was just as crucial. Its trio offered a long line in the tradition of a Bach dance; the motivic working out could only, however, have been Beethoven’s. The slow movement was gravely beautiful in its eloquence, Beethoven revealed at his most Romantically innig. Bachian and Beethovenian lessons had clearly been well learned in the finale, which offered release, but also struggle yet to come. Form was properly dynamic. Beethoven’s greatness and sheer humanity were celebrated, reaffirmed.
Mark Berry, Boulezian, 13 May 2015
A lunchtime premiere: Richard Uttley at St John’s Smith Square
There was a palpable sense of tension and expectation as I made my way through the tourist crowds milling around the Houses of Parliament. Across the road, on College Green, the press pack was settling in for a long night ahead, tracking the results as they came in and offering minute-by-minute comment and analysis. Not far away, nestled amongst government buildings, is St John’s Smith Square, an English baroque church which is home to a wide variety of concerts, including an excellent lunchtime series. And on Britain’s 2015 Election Day it was a civilised oasis of culture for those of us attending Richard Uttley’s lunchtime piano recital.
Pianist Richard Uttley presented a programme whose theme was dance. Bookended by works by Bach and Beethoven, the middle part of the concert featured the world premiere of two movements of Matthew Kaner’s ‘Dance Suite’, which Richard commissioned from the composer. The first movement, Mazurka, drew many influences from the traditional Polish dance in its rustic rhythms but also from one of the greatest exponents of the form, Chopin, in its melodic fragments. There were references to Szymanowski too in the more reflective, haunting melodies. The second movement, Sarabande, was a more meditative and lyrical, redolent of the sombre elegance of Bach’s sarabandes which are found in his French and English Suites. Uttley is a keen champion of contemporary music and he seemed completely at home in this repertoire. In the lively ‘Mazurka’ he brought crisp articulation and robust rhythmic vitality, while the ‘Sarabande’ was graceful and sensitively shaped. This same attention to detail was evident in Bach’s Partita No. 4 which opened the concert. A florid and sprightly Overture gave way to a serene Allemande, given an almost romantic cast through Uttley’s elegant legato and subtle shaping. The Partita ended with a lively Gigue. Beethoven’s Sonata in A Op 101 seems to begin in the middle of things, as if we and performer have come upon it half way through. Its elegance mirrored that of slow movements of the Bach. This is offset by a lively March, which was emphatic and decisive. Another movement of serenity was followed by an exuberant finale, underpinned by that most stable of musical devices, the fugue, and played with much wit and vigour. As if often the way when contemporary music is programmed alongside more well-known works, the new revealed striking similarities in the Bach, Beethoven and contemporary works, while the old gave the listener a useful jumping off point into the new. I very much look forward to hearing further movements from Matthew Kaner.
Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, May 8 2015