Thoughts about the Piano: Claudia Chan's fascinating programme

Buy this disc for Chan's performance of Xenakis' Evryali alone, then go on to peel away the other discoveries ....

Thoughts about the Piano: Claudia Chan's fascinating programme

More from B Records here, the label associated with the Orléans Piano Compsetition (which was in fact my introduction to the company). This particular disc is linked to Royaumont Live and presents the Chinese-Canadian, Cologne-based panist Claudia Chan.

Chan was Artist-in-Residence of the contemporary music department of Fondation Royaumont from 2017. The disc was recorded live, whic, as Chan explains in this interview, added an extra layer to the experience:

We begin with Philippe Leroux‘s AMA:

Texturally quixotic, the piece is a kaleidoscope of piano sounds and techniques. Chan finds beauty as well as contemporary hardness. Composed in 2009 and commissioned by the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud competition, AMA is split into two parts (AMA I and AMA II) and explores piano resonance and ideas of ongoing transformation. The resonances come about through deep understanding ofteh piano as a physical, acoustic instrument; some faster, high passages almost sound electronic as we hear the hammers raining down (stunningly played here). There is a feeling of dissembling and the bringing together of ideas from the opening; challenenges include ‘polyrhythmic terracing’ (justaposing layers of complex rhythms), There is a distant whistling towards the end, which brings the title into play. “Ama” refers to Japanese female pearl fishers who use a special breathing technique to achieve their goals.

The piano is caught perfectly. We literally need to hear every nuance, and B-Records’ soudn allows for that. Chan’s performance itself is rearkable, shot through with character,even dancing at times, perhaps amusing at others, at one pont sounding like a million bells going off at once, often technically fierce.

Chan teases Christopher Chamberlain’s Rejected Ballet Music (2018) into being. Subtitled “Ultimately not approproate for dancing,” Here's what the composer has to say about it (taken from his website):

About the title: It came fair­ly late in the process of writ­ing the piece, at a del­i­cate time when the piece need­ed to gath­er itself around a clear ethos. It does­n’t reflect the idea that start­ed the piece, but rather seeks to extend, bol­ster, and inter­act with it, to sug­gest avenues for lis­ten­ing. (The piece first grew out of soft­ware that I devel­oped to gen­er­ate chord pro­gres­sions by algo­rith­mi­cal­ly find­ing paths through vast net­works of relat­ed har­monies, all bound­ed by an under­stand­ing of the hands’ abil­i­ty to play only a par­tic­u­lar body of chords on the piano. But those tech­ni­cal aspects do not define the piece’s char­ac­ter and I don’t care to make them the cen­ter of attention.)
I like to imag­ine this piece as a kind of undance­able dance (a bit of ther­a­py), some­thing too per­son­al to suc­ceed because it nev­er was actu­al­ly meant to be shared. Per­haps it was begun with the inten­tion of actu­al­ly sup­port­ing dance but, at some point, it was con­sumed by an incom­mu­ni­ca­bly per­son­al prob­lem. That’s why this bal­let music was reject­ed but, beyond that, its rejec­tion casts the piece in a more pri­vate light: There’s inti­ma­cy in our expe­ri­ence of final­ly hear­ing it — like read­ing an arti­cle reject­ed from a mag­a­zine or a nev­er-pub­lished book. Just like us, it is imper­fect and vul­ner­a­ble; so, in sym­pa­thiz­ing with it, we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty a lit­tle bit bet­ter to love and accept ourselves.

The key points are the intimacy of the experience; and interestingly, how when the music finally crescendos, it implies (to this listener at least) emotional pain:

Chamberlain: Rejected Ballet Music

Can is superb here in understanding Chamberlain’s mode of discourse, from softened Schoenbergian dyads to, perhaps Cardew. The piece was a commission from Royaumont from 2018  for Claudia Chan.

Elliott Carter is of course well-known. His Two Thoughts About The Piano of 2011 comprises “Intermittences” and “Caténaires”. Stephen Beck has made a fine recording on Bridge Records (an all-Carter disc), but I prefer Chan’s impeccable musicianship here. Here‘s the first:

Carter: Intermitences

Chan’s virtuosity is simply scintillating in the second Carter piece, her fingerwork so even. Having mentioned Beck, I do find the honours tied between Chan and Pina Napoletano on Odradek on the disc Tempo e Tempi, which mixes works by Carter and Beethoven (teh Piano Sonatas Nos. 31 and 32).

A piece of sublime tranquility, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh’s Radius was written at Royaumant Noix academy in 2017 for Chan. For this listener it acts as an invitation into more  of Hsieh’s music; it exudes beauty, even when asking the pianist tomake scratchings and so on. The score of Radius is available here, and here is the piece itself:


Penultimately, we have Maël Mailly’s or not prepared (2005), bright, almost Minimalist at its opening before taking that repeated gesture and eamining it, deconstructing it. A single note (G) holds the first movement together while the second orbits around a cluster:

Bailly: or not prepared (i)
Bailly: be not prepared (ii)

In a masterpiece of programming, Bailly’s piece leads impeccably into Xanakis’ 1973 piece Evryali. It says a lot about thsi programme to say that this is probably the best known piece (some might argue for Carter). After having re-fallen in love with the music of Xenakis via the Révolutions Xenakis exhibition at the Philharmonie, Cité de la Musique, Paris, recently, it is wonderful to hear thsi piece played with real clarity yet excitement. Inevitably the name of Claude Halffter crops up in discussion with this piece (I remember a performance by that pianist at London’s Wigmore Hall of Xenakis’ Mists being a real turning point for me), but Chan has her own way. Her clear priority of clarity and excitement in equal measure, plus a desire to find beauty, is revelatory. Buy this disc for this performance alone, then go on to peel away the other discoveries:

Iannis Xenakis: Evryali

Thoughts about the Piano
Carter (Beck, Bridge)Tempo e Tempi (Napolitano, Odradek)