Rhinegold Nicolas Hodges: 'Any pairing of two great composers illuminates them both'

Owen Mortimer

Nicolas Hodges celebrates Beethoven and Birtwistle on disc

1:17, 22nd December 2020

Pianist Nicolas Hodges’ new album A Bag of Bagatelles pairs works by Harrison Birtwistle – here given their premiere recordings – with repertoire by Beethoven

This is your first studio recording of repertoire from the core classical canon. What made you choose this moment to commit Beethoven’s music to disc?

It was simply a happy coincidence that the two crucial organisations for the recording, Wergo and the West German Radio, were simultaneously interested in my programme. Maybe I just also wanted to do it enough!

Why the pairing of Beethoven with Birtwistle? In what ways do these composers illuminate one another, and how did you decide the album’s running order?

I toyed with various pairings for Harry’s [Birtwistle’s] music, but as soon as I alighted on Beethoven it became clear to me that this was the way to go. Harry’s reaction – which was quite a funny combination of pure shock along with embarrassed enjoyment of the idea – also encouraged me to make the decision.

Any pairing of two great composers illuminates both somehow. The trick is to find composers who are both very close and very distant from one another, so that there are points of contact and at the same time extreme divergences.

The running order was mostly blindingly obvious. Alternating the two composers was part of the idea of the album, and as soon as I realised that I had premiered not only Harry’s Dance of the Metro-Gnome but also two other pieces, and that I still had a fondness for the Beethoven Allegretto [WoO 61] I used to play as an encore, I had three pairs of pieces in total. I hesitated a little as to which Beethoven to put first, because the Op 126 Bagatelles are such a masterpiece, and start so furtively – but in the end the dramatic start of the Op 77 Fantasy won the day.

Birtwistle and Hodges at the album recording session in November 2019 (Photo credit: Janet Sinica)

You’re very closely associated with the music of Birtwistle. What are the qualities of his music you most admire?

Both he and Beethoven are masters of surprise. While Harry has written a lot of music using similar techniques and displaying similar preoccupations, there’s always so much that’s new in each piece. I recently listened to his opera The Last Supper and was struck by this quality. It’s immediately recognisable as a Birtwistle opera, but at the same time, it does lots of things which he never did in any other piece. Plus I just love the sound it makes!

What was it like having Birtwistle present during the recording sessions for A Bag of Bagatelles?

It was very illuminating. He’s been at my recordings before and hasn’t always said very much other than it’s ‘fine’, but this time he was very involved and made many comments and suggestions on his own pieces. Knowing him personally doesn’t change how I play except on the level of him telling me to do it differently.

It’s great working with him because he only says what’s really necessary. He doesn’t tell me stuff I already know, like that I played a wrong note!

A Bag of Bagatelles by Nicolas Hodges is now available on Wergo (WER 6860 2) nicolashodges.com

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