Piano Music by Philip Hammond

'Pianistic fireworks' and 'blues inflections' make this birthday celebration CD anything but dry

'My music is totally responsive and reactive to the people I know. Without my friends there'd be no music, every piece of my music has a story about it.'

That's Philip Hammond speaking, and his comments certainly apply to the new CD of his piano music just released on the Lorelt label (LNT134) to mark the Belfast composer's 60th birthday.

'French Blue', for instance, which launches this generous, 74-minute recital, is dedicated to an erstwhile teacher of Hammond's at Campbell College. It's a piece with strong blues inflections (Hammond himself cites Gershwin's influence), with flicking upward arpeggios lending a real spring and snap to the music.

'Irish Green' is more meditative, fluttering clusters of notes high on the keyboard recalling Liszt's Saint Francis Legends, with hints of Messiaen's bird imitations also palpable. The drivingly motoric rhythms of 'African Black' nod at American minimalism, and round the triptych off with an impressive display of bounding pianistic fireworks.

These 'colour pieces' highlight another aspect of Hammond's umbilical attachment to real-world people in his music, in that they're played (one each) by Michael McHale, Cathal Breslin, and David Quigley respectively, members of a stellar rising generation of Northern Irish pianists.

All three have worked closely with Hammond and played his music frequently, and it shows in the assurance of their performances. McHale is given some of Hammond's most poetic pages, floating the undulating phrases of the brief 'Epithalamion' elegantly across invisible bar-lines, and caressing the ascending chordal pattern which recurs throughout '....This hour of quiet....' with great poise and tonal beauty.

The poetry distilled by Cathal Breslin from 'Tres memorias de Lorca' is of a different, more smouldering variety, plumbing the darkly fateful world of the great Spanish writer shot dead in the Spanish Civil War. Hammond successfully doffs a stylistic hat to Albéniz in these broodingly intense pieces, and Breslin captures their haunted chiaroscuro most effectively.

David Quigley is the most explicitly virtuosic of the three pianists, and the jittering syncopations and sharp dynamic reflexes of 'Ho Hum Hill N.H.', named after a quaint location in New Hampshire, America, suit him perfectly. He too, though, gets to do introspection, in 'The island beyond the world', at ten minutes the longest single movement in the programme.

Quigley's performance is a triumph of concentration at Hammond's 'almost static' tempo marking, the piece's visionary glimpse of the beyond summoning again the ghosts of Liszt and Messiaen, while remaining strongly individual and speaking in Hammond's own distinctive accent.

That accent belongs to a composer entirely happy to eschew the ephemerally fashionable, and unafraid to write modern piano music that still has hummable tunes in it, and responds sharply to people and places in the world of shared everyday reality.

That's ultimately what makes Hammond's piano music so refreshing: it has the tang of lived experience, it sounds fun to play, and it's anything but cerebral or dryly academic.

Fine sound, Hammond's own informative notes on the music, and uniformly excellent playing from the three soloists cap a strong recommendation for this timely 60th birthday issue.

At the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's three Northern Irish pianists explore the anniversaries of three composers through their piano music,  Franz Liszt, Percy Grainger and Philip Hammond.

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