Beethoven • Birtwistle
A Bag of Bagatelles – Beethoven: Fantasy, Op. 77; Bagatelles, Op. 126; Allegretto, WoO 61; Birtwistle: Variations from The Golden Mountain; Gigue Machine; Dance of the metro-gnome
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Wergo WER 6810-2 59:11 mins
The New Oxford Companion to Music describes a bagatelle as ‘a short and unpretentious instrumental piece, usually for keyboard’. From his ‘bag of bagatelles’, pianist Nicolas Hodges pulls out probably the most famous example of the genre, Beethoven’s Op. 126. But rather than pit this against comparable works by Bartók, Liszt or even Dohnányi, Hodges plumps for pieces by Harrison Birtwistle. These are not bagatelles at all – Tom Service’s otherwise excellent sleeve notes inform us that the title is intended ironically. Well, that’s cleared that up, then.
Title aside, the pairing of Beethoven and Birtwistle is highly successful. Hodges draws on the ‘rough-hewn strength’ of both composers; their technical brilliance, versatility and, above all, their understanding of the art of surprise. Although Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126, the meatiest chunk of the recording, foreshadows many musical developments, it is the Fantasy, Op. 77 that dazzles for its almost illogical harmony. It sits perfectly happily alongside Birtwistle’s ponderous Variations from the Golden Mountain, written some 200 years later.
Hodges is a wonderful Beethovenian. He’s also a tremendous performer of contemporary music (he is the dedicatee of works by Adès, Carter, Rebecca Saunders and others), and the three Birtwistle pieces – all first recordings – were made in the presence of the composer (who has jokingly referred to Hodges as his Peter Pears).
From the whirring Gigue Machine to the sparse variations, Hodges demonstrates an unerring understanding of Birtwistle’s language. Children’s piece Dance of the metro-gnome – requiring a metronome and vocalisations – is surprisingly sinister.
Read more reviews of the Birtwistle reviews here