Composer Philip Hammond's 2015

With a new album and Piano Concerto to premiere in Belfast on January 5, life has never been busier for the composer

‘I sometimes like to call myself an ORN,’ says composer Philip Hammond. ‘An Old Retired Nobody.’

There’s a mischievous glint in his eye, of course, but nonetheless he is way too modest. 60-something is, for one thing, no age worth talking about in classical music – both Wagner and Janácek were creating operatic masterpieces well into their 60s.

The American Elliott Carter, who died two years ago, was still publishing new work when he passed 100. Longevity is good for composers: like fine wine, they just keep on getting better.

Hammond himself is living proof of that. Early in the New Year, he has two big projects coming to fruition, both involving the piano. One is a new concerto for the instrument, the second an album of solo pieces, mainly original recordings.

Common to both is Hammond’s ongoing relationship with Belfast pianist, Michael McHale, who included some of the composer’s music in The Irish Piano, his widely acclaimed solo debut album on the RTÉ Lyric label.

Hammond first met McHale, now 32, as a teenaged pupil at Methodist College, while the young musician was preparing a piece of Hammond's for a competition. ‘He was a very fine pianist, even at that age,' recalls Hammond, 'and I kept in touch with him and watched his progress.’

When, 15 years later, McHale approached Hammond about the possibility of writing a concerto, there wasn’t a hint of hesitation. ‘Not for someone like him,’ explains the composer. ‘His musicianship has blossomed organically and he’s very, very talented. Once you’ve engaged with Michael you want to keep engaging with him. He’s that sort of person.’

It is one thing having a concerto to write, and quite another knowing what to put in it. McHale’s stipulations were, wisely, of a fairly open-ended, non-specific nature. ‘He said, “I’d like a big piano concerto in the old style, a romantic piano concerto with a big R,”’ explains Hammond. ‘Beyond that he has not been over-prescriptive in the slightest.’

Hammond recalls clearly how the original musical ideas for the new concerto were born, and what prompted them. ‘I was very fortunate I was offered a six-week residency at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris. I was reading a lot of French poetry, including a poem by the Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé called 'Renouveau' ('Renewal').

‘The predominant emotion in the poem is the beauty of winter, but it’s a dark time. Out of that, spring suddenly happens at the end, and Mallarmé talks about the sound of the birds erupting from the hedgerows in the sun. At the same time in the Irish Cultural Centre in mid-April there were little families of blackbirds, vying with each other to see who could come up with the best birdsong. And it was quite idyllic.’

The winter-spring trajectory in Mallarmé’s poem – its emergence from darkness into brilliant light – became the narrative spine round which Hammond began shaping his new concerto. There was also, he adds, a very specific musical point of departure, born of the opportunity the Paris residency gave him to turn again to the instrument of his youth, and play the piano for pleasure.

‘I decided to re-learn all the Bach Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, to renew myself with Bach. To me he’s the greatest musical genius ever, and the 24th Prelude of the First Book suddenly became like a revelation to me. I played and played it.

‘It has this rising beginning to it, and it’s beautifully contrapuntal, pure Bach. That prelude and the Mallarmé poem were the starting points of the whole piano concerto.’ From these beginnings grew eventually the three-movement, 25-minute work that McHale will premiere on the afternoon of January 5, in a live Radio 3 broadcast with the Ulster Orchestra from the Ulster Hall in Belfast.

The slow movement – ‘the emotional core of the work’, says Hammond – was composed first, the first notes written down the day the composer arrived in Paris. The ‘fast, sparky, boisterous, toccata-style’ finale quickly followed. ‘In my head was the sound of the birds from both the Mallarmé poem and the Cultural Centre – the ebullience, the shrillness, the constancy of birdsong, the general commotion.’

The ‘dark, gothic’ opening movement, though composed last, turned out to contain many of the motivic seeds that germinate in the later movements, though Hammond says that oddly this was not in any way a deliberate, preconceived decision.

‘You sometimes don’t know you have this intuitive compositional process going on in your head,’ he muses. ‘I sometimes wake up in the morning with problems solved in musical terms – and I don’t go to bed saying “OK, I’m going to work this one out in my unconscious.” It just kind of happens, the brain keeps going whether you’re aware or unaware of it.’

Following the world premiere of the Piano Concerto in Belfast, there is a substantial bonus for Hammond later in January, when the National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin will also play the new piece, in a programme entirely given over to his music. ‘With this concerto I’m lucky. It’s having two performances within three weeks of one another, which is remarkable.’

It is not, however, quite the end of a month that probably rates as the most eventful in Hammond’s entire career as a composer. For January 2015 also sees the release of Miniatures and Modulations, a recording of the complete cycle of works for solo piano based on melodies in The Ancient Music of Ireland, collected by Edward Bunting at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792.

15 of these ‘treatments’ of Bunting’s tunes were originally heard in 2011 at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, which commissioned them. Hammond subsequently added six more specifically for McHale, the soloist on the new recording. Hammond professes himself delighted with McHale’s ‘stunning’ work during the sessions in Limerick, at the studio of the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

‘When I hear him play my music I think, “That’s just the way I wanted it to sound.” Jimmy Galway, whom Michael regularly accompanies, once said to me, “Oh you can write that boy anything, he can play anything." And it’s the truth – he can, he has that ability.’

Philip Hammond’s Miniatures and Modulations is available on the Naxos Grand Piano label (GP702).