The launch of my album Sixteen Contemporary Love Songs on Orchid Classics last June was the culmination of a four-year project which fell into two parts. In the first part I put together and recorded a collection of sixteen timelessly gorgeous love songs for solo piano from the romantic era, many of which have resurfaced in recent film scores or pop songs (Sixteen Love Songs ORC100056). In the second part, I invited present day composers to write their own responses to this romantic genre. The project brought together two important threads of my life as a professional pianist: a love of piano music that exploits the more expressive and intimate nature of the instrument and a passion for commissioning new music.
Commissioning a single piece can be a long drawn out process, which involves fundraising to pay for the commissions and a great deal of correspondence with composers and publishers about fees, deadlines, contracts, premieres etc. All this is followed by a period of waiting (sometimes years!) for the piece to be written. The real excitement for the performer begins when the first pages of the work arrive and you experience the thrill of exploring a piece that no one but the composer has played or heard before.
Some pieces don’t reveal their secrets immediately. This is especially true with music of great complexity or technical difficulty, which may require many days or weeks of practice before the performer can really start to understand and appreciate it. But every now and again a piece will grab your attention right from the start. This was very much the case with Solitary Highland Song by Howard Skempton, which I chose as the opening track of Sixteen Contemporary Love Songs. I remember clearly the moment when the piece arrived by email and I took my laptop straight to the piano to play it through. I immediately fell in love with the haunting melody and plaintive harmonies of this short piece, which is inspired by Wordsworth’s poem The Solitary Reaper. I played it again several times on the spot and then couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. Howard’s work is simple on the surface, but with familiarity it reveals all the imagination and craft of a truly great composer. His scores never look daunting but his pieces are in fact not at all easy to perform. They require an exceptional attention to detail and control of sound and mood combined with a sense of freedom and fantasy. One critic wrote that to play his music you need “a purity of soul”, which is quite a challenge! But his music is always rewarding to study and perform.
My first encounter with Piers Hellawell’s Love on the Escalator was more of a challenge when I received the score. Although it had by far the best title of all the new love songs, I struggled to get inside the music and to make the piece hang together in a coherent performance. It was not until the composer had emerged from his Hebridean retreat and I had the chance to play the piece to him that I realised that I had misunderstood some parts of the score. After many fascinating weeks of correspondence about possible ways to notate what he wanted, the piece finally took shape for me and has become one of my firm favourites in the collection.
I have admired and performed Piers’s and Howard’s music since the 1980s and have hugely valued these long-term collaborations. Other composers on this album with whom I have worked for decades include David Matthews, Pavel Zemek Novák and Judith Weir, who wrote the first solo piano piece that I commissioned back in 1983 (The Art of Touching the Keyboard). Having got to know a great many composers over the years, it was extremely difficult to decide who to ask to contribute to my love song collection. My initial short list had 80 names on it. When I tried to cut it down, friends in the musical world kept coming up with new and interesting suggestions. It struck me more than ever what a wealth of talent there is among today’s composers and how little known some of these names are. My choices in the end were designed to display as wide a range of contemporary styles as possible, my only brief to the composers being that the pieces should be short and represent some kind of love song for solo piano. `I took the opportunity to approach several composers whose music I admired but had not played before, including Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry and Joby Talbot, and, with Judith Weir’s encouragement, set up an international competition for writing piano love songs, which to my astonishment attracted 526 entries from 61 countries. The two winning pieces by Frederick Viner and Chia-Ying Lin feature on the album.
The love song theme has, as I hoped, opened a door to many people who are not regular listeners of contemporary music and has also encouraged the composers themselves to bring a very personal element to what they have written. On hearing the whole album one composer wrote: “The recording and the concept of entirely short love songs is an ideal way for anyone, including myself, to catch up on ‘modern music’. Each song I’ve heard has such concentration and, I think, stylistic purity and clarity from being conceived on such an intimate scale.”
Since the release of the album I have been enjoying the responses that have come my way from friends and members of the public. I have found that not everyone likes every track on the album, but there is not a single piece which is not somebody’s favourite! Streaming figures have also been interesting to follow. It has given me particular pleasure that Howard Skempton’s Solitary Highland Song has been exceptionally popular on streaming platforms. Given that some music takes time to work its way into the world it will be fascinating to see which other pieces will have worked their way up the charts in ten or twenty years’ time.