British pianist Peter Hill has gained fame and fortune as a specialist in the works of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), so it was no surprise that his performance at Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall on Tuesday, October 11, was a “specialty program.” Each half opened with a prelude and fugue from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, with the remainder consisting of Messiaen. Virtually all Messiaen’s piano works have one (or both) of two foundations: birdsong and his devout Roman Catholic faith. Listeners hoping to hear a wide range of composers and periods should have gone elsewhere perhaps, but anyone wanting to hear infrequently programmed repertoire played with an astounding range of touch and color was richly rewarded. We also had the benefit of the performer’s witty and informative remarks about the music and reminiscences of working on it with Messiaen himself.
The program began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor. Hill took an unapologetically romantic approach; the effect was tender and elegiac. His moderate use of the pedal allowed him to take a tempo in the prelude that would be nearly impossible to sustain on the harpsichord. He also made subtle use of rubato, chord-rolls of varying speeds, and crescendi and diminuendi. He achieved clarity of polyphony in the fugue not merely by tastefully highlighting each occurrence of the subject, but also through use of different articulations simultaneously—particularly fitting when the subject appears in canon in two different voices. This may not have been a purist’s playing of Bach, but for all others its beauty and emotional traction were undeniable.
Hill played the first three Messiaen pieces as a group, the better to illustrate the huge contrast between the composer’s earliest style and that of almost thirty years later. The first piece, taken from his Préludes (1929), was La Colombe (The Dove). Though the influence of Debussy is still perceptible, at age twenty Messiaen had already discovered his “modes of limited transposition” which formed the basis of his distinctive musical language. This prelude is constructed in a rondo form whose returning theme is a gentle fluttering figure that Hill played with delicacy. The contrast with the second piece was indeed stark. La Chouette hulotte (The Tawny Owl), taken from the thirteen-movement Catalogue d’oiseaux (Bird Catalogue) of 1958, depicts a nocturnal bird of prey. The illustration of darkness and fear was clearly etched with powerfully deep bass notes and screeches in the treble. Individual notes had their own dynamics, and as in the Bach, Hill’s wondrously nuanced touch distinguished different textures happening simultaneously. The third of the group (also from the Catalogue) was L’Alouette Lulu (The Woodlark), a considerably gentler nocturnal bird which converses with the nightingale. Hill’s voicing of chords was something quite special, and he tastefully contrasted the fluid descending song of the woodlark with the insistent tremolos of the nightingale.
The first half concluded with another selection from Catalogue, Le Merle bleu (The Blue Rock Thrush), which inhabits crevices of the cliffs overhanging the Mediterranean near Banyuls. Messiaen and Hill painted a vivid picture of waves crashing below and swifts singing above before the title bird was heard. Its song is vaguely pentatonic (with much added), leading the pianist to describe it as “a Balinese gamelan gone mad.” Another section, fast and brilliant, reproduced the song of the Thecla crested lark. Between sections was a recurring passage of serene, utterly beautiful chords which could have come from no other composer’s pen. Hill skillfully delineated a wider range of moods (i.e. species of birds) and settings here than in the previous pieces. The concluding, sweetly minor chord felt almost nostalgic.
After intermission came Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor, full of yearning and well sustained. The fugue is notable for its very brief four-note subject and almost static opening. Once again, Hill’s mastery of different articulations within a polyphonic texture paid dividends. The next Messiaen piece, Cantéyodjayâ, was particularly interesting for several reasons. First, it was written at Tanglewood, where Serge Koussevitzky had invited him to teach in the summer of 1949. Second, it is unique among Messiaen’s piano works in having nothing to do with either birds or religious faith. Third, the composer did not like it; it wasn’t premiered until 1953 and published some time thereafter. One of Messiaen’s most experimental works, it is given a rondo-like structure by a recurring passage. Messiaen’s stated goal was to apply serialism not only to pitches but also rhythms and dynamics. It was much to Hill’s credit that he was able to make such a cerebral piece into an engaging musical experience. Certainly it didn’t hurt that Cantéyodjayâ featured likely the most obvious pyrotechnics on the program—especially its brilliant chordal sections. Incidentally, though the title resembles Hindi (and the piece is largely based on Hindu rhythms), according to Hill, it is a “nonsense word” made up by the composer.
The next “bird piece” was not taken from Catalogue d’oiseaux. Messiaen’s wife, the marvelous pianist Yvonne Loriod, mentioned to him in the early 1980s that in his decades of writing ornithologically inspired pieces he had never portrayed the simple robin. Le Rouge-gorge (The Robin) that Hill played is actually the first of three pieces of that title in the Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux (Little Bird Sketches) of 1985. Hill described the piece as resembling the product of Olivier Messiaen’s and Anton Webern’s joining minds. It is indeed a brief and concentrated piece with lovely chords alternating with flurries and cascading motifs, all rendered colorfully by Hill.
We returned to Catalogue for the final piece. Le Traquet stapazin (The Black-eared Wheatear) is a native of the same Mediterranean area as the blue rock thrush. As usual, Messiaen doesn’t limit himself to the one bird of the title but portrays a whole community of them, beginning relatively quietly at sunrise, gaining energy and variety through the day, and gradually calming down again as the sun sets over the Pyrenees. Hill’s performance was atmospheric, describing settings such as the cavernous sonorities of clefts in the cliffs and reproducing different avian “personalities” nearby and far away. Hill’s sovereign control of touch allowed the ending to trail off ever so gently in the manner of drifting off to sleep.
The audience’s vociferous approval led to two short encores. First was Toru Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch II”, written as a tribute to Messiaen soon after his death. Its opening texture was similar to Messiaen’s early works, while the latter section had the perfume of his characteristic harmonies. Hill gave it a bewitching ambience. Second was a delicious oddity: a piece Messiaen composed in the 1930s as a sight-reading test for the Paris Conservatoire. He apparently composed a great number of such tests, but all were discarded and lost but this one, which was included in an anthology of sight-reading tests by multiple composers. It has more than a whiff of George Gershwin(!), who, after all, had come to Paris in the 20s hoping to study with Maurice Ravel. Hill clearly enjoyed this luscious mixture of French and American sound-worlds, as did the audience.
In summary, Peter Hill is a pianist’s pianist, displaying multiple types of virtuosity beyond brilliant technique. His nuances of dynamics, shadings of touch, varieties of articulation, and subtleties of pedaling are rare. While one can’t help longing to hear what this pianist would make of some of the mainstream piano repertoire, until Messiaen is even somewhat regularly on most other pianists’ programs, Hill’s inspired advocacy remains vital.