Sometimes Startled

Kevin Volans (Photo: José Pedro Salinas)

Sometimes Startled

A new album on the Diatribe label features South African pianist Jill Richards performing six of Kevin Volans' études, while the composer plays a number of works by Liszt. Mark Fitzgerald reviews.

Following the release in 2015 of Kevin Volans’ Étude 9 on the Ergodos album violin:piano, this new Diatribe CD presents recordings of a further six of Volans’ thirteen piano études. As on the Ergodos disc, the music is performed by South African pianist Jill Richards. Coupled with these presumably recent recordings (there is no date given on the CD) are four Liszt pieces played by Volans, recorded just over twenty years ago. Together they provide interesting insights into Volans’ approach to shaping and interpreting material in both his own work and that of others.

In an essay accompanying the CD, Volans suggests that his deep immersion in the piano repertoire was something of a hindrance when faced with the task of writing for piano, resulting in him largely avoiding solo piano composition in the first half of his career. Having decided to confront the problem, Volans took as his starting point the idea of transcribing and reconceiving for keyboard some of his own pre-existing works as a way of avoiding the limitations over-familiarity with the conventions of piano writing might bring; the use of such non-pianistic material would prevent the pieces from falling into any of the standard keyboard formulae and clichés. In the case of the six études on this disc, Volans details the sources for five, with only the fourth étude seeming (as far as one can tell from the notes) to stem from a more abstract idea of combining elements of different densities. The result is a set of pieces of ferocious difficulty and the CD booklet includes three short hair-raising musical examples to illustrate the challenges faced by the interpreter. 

Contrasting works
The études on the disc all date from the first decade of the century. Those who are familiar with Volans’ work will know that this fact does not tell us anything in advance regarding the pieces, as that decade produced such contrasted works as the Sixth String Quartet (2000) and the Trio Concerto (2005); these days one never knows what to expect at a Volans premiere. However, the fact that the pieces range back as far as the 80s for their sources adds some extra surprises for the listener, while also raising all sorts of interesting questions about transcription from one medium to another and how such reworking can alter one’s perception of material.

The disc opens with Étude 2, which is based on material discarded from a dance collaboration with Jonathan Burrows from 1998. It juxtaposes different dynamics and densities to create a rather imposing if un-dancelike piece. The stasis of the work provides a high contrast to the bustling activity of Étude 3. This collides material from a withdrawn 1983 piece Journal: Walking Song (which was subsequently recycled into String Quartet No. 2, Hunting:Gathering) with an extract from the conclusion of his Cello Concerto (1997). The open-sounding intervals of the latter enable the two pieces of material join seamlessly, prompting one to consider the elements of continuity in Volans’ music behind the shifting surface style. With its bright, jagged patterning, this étude is probably the most immediate of the six pieces on the disc.

The introverted Étude 7, consisting of delicate chords played with quiet intensity, derives from the second movement of String Quartet No. 9, Shiva Dances (2004). In Étude 4 a loud chord and single notes are interleaved in a way that seems unpredictable but is in fact following a strict process. A tremolo idea intervenes as a sort of palette-cleanser between sections. Étude 1 uses material from the opera The Man with Footsoles of Wind (1993), part of which also appeared in the related Third Quartet, The Songlines (surely a revival of this opera, which has not been heard since its London premiere, would be an ideal project for Irish National Opera?). The result presents what sounds like some of the most complicated rhythmic layering to be found in the études. Étude 6 (the longest of the selection at nine minutes) returns to the 90s with a reworking of a section of the orchestral piece 100 Frames (1991).

Listening to this CD can be a bit like the experience of listening to Liszt’s arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies for solo piano where one is sometimes startled by the emergence of something that is submerged in the orchestral guise but stands out in the transcription. There are also times when it sounds like there has been an insertion of new material before you realise it is merely the change of medium that has de-familiarised the material. Near the close of Volans’ Cello Concerto the cello’s semiquavers are in the foreground of the texture, while behind this (in both senses of the word) the orchestra sounds slow chords. A reversal seems to take place when this is transferred to Étude 3. The rhythmic regularity of the semiquavers places them in the background of the aural picture, while the chords take over the foreground. In addition, the Gerald Barry-esque brass chorale, which cuts dramatically across the texture in the Concerto does not stand out with the same prominence in the piano version. Moments like this will be endlessly fascinating for Volans fans.

In other places, while none of this music is anything less than challenging for the pianist, the reduction for piano presents solutions to issues thrown up by the original format of the material. The perilous high writing in Shiva Dances can be more securely achieved in its guise as Étude 7, particularly when it is as sensitively played as it is by Richards. On the other hand, for me, Étude 6 was problematic. Volans notes that performances of contemporary orchestral music tend to be under-rehearsed, and the fact that such pieces tend not to be repeated in the way the standard repertoire is endlessly repeated means that orchestral musicians never gain the level of familiarity with the music that would enable them get beyond the level of competent sight-reading. Volans argues that the piano transcription of part of 100 Frames enables us to hear the correct voicing of the notes. However, if you are familiar with 100 Frames, the loss of that carefully assigned array of instrumental colour, which is such an integral part of the work, seems like too great a sacrifice to make for such accuracy. Clearly if you are approaching this for the first time purely as piano music your experience of the piece will be entirely different.

Volans has been very lucky in the range of performers who have championed his music over the years and nowhere more so than on this CD. Jill Richards’ performances make the most outlandish difficulties seem perfectly reasonable and she also brings a wonderful sense of touch to the quieter études.

Private recordings
The remainder of the disc features performances by Volans himself. Anyone familiar with Volans’ performances on the Black Box CD of Gerald Barry’s chamber music, or who has heard him live, will be aware of his prodigious technical ability. This is clearly demonstrated in his selection of Liszt compositions which comprises the transcription of the close of Wagner’s
Tristan und Isolde, ‘Harmonies du soir’ from the Transcendental Études, and ‘Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este: Threnody I’ and ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’ from the third book of the Années de Pèlerinage.

The liner notes explain that these are taken from a group of private recordings, some of which have been lost. Certainly, the varying quality of the sound in each track would suggest some complicated history. The piano tone is sometimes a little fuzzy, and the final track in particular sounds as if it has undergone some technical rescue work while oddly varying levels of hiss can be heard in ‘Aux cyprès’ when headphones are used. Musically, however, the performances, as often happens when composers perform other people’s music, are fascinating for what they reveal about Volans’ aesthetic outlook.

For Volans, Liszt is a fellow modernist, someone who takes no aspect of music as given. In terms of approach, Volans seems to combine what one might call a ‘modernist’ objective approach (carefully articulated chords, scrupulous observation of note durations and dynamic changes and careful delineation of interior lines) with a free-wheeling romantic style, rich in rubato, which can suddenly tear ahead in giddy accelerandi, almost abandoning any sense of control. Contrast, in the Liebestod, the analytical highlighting of the repeated four-note accompanying figure at ‘Höre ich nur diese Weise…’ with the broad rubato at ‘Wonne klagend’ and the impetuous race to the climax. The other pieces provide a similar approach. If one was to raise any niggles, perhaps ‘Les jeux d’eaux’ is not quite aqueous enough, with a slightly earthbound climax, and the opening section  of ‘Harmonies du soir’ is a bit too careful, though once the music reaches the poco più mosso, the performance takes flight and sustains this elevated tone to the end of the work.

All in all, this is another fine release from Diatribe which grants the listener a range of different new insights into Volans’ music. In a way it acts like a mini retrospective of his output from the 80s to the early 2000s and the Liszt filler is far more than Volans’ modest description of it as a ‘private recording’ might suggest. It will doubtlessly intrigue fans of his music but should also inspire other listeners to make their own exploration of his impressive catalogue of works.

Études – Jill Richards / Kevin Volans is available to purchase at

Published on 20 July 2022

Mark Fitzgerald is a Senior Lecturer at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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