April 16, 2014

“I’m annoyed by almost anything played on an electric guitar…” – interview with Scottish piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton

“I’m annoyed by almost anything played on an electric guitar…” – interview with Scottish piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton

Scottish piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton returns to Singapore to perform an all Bach recital! Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with the professor in an email interview ahead of his recital here.

Hello again Prof. Hamilton, congratulations on last year’s sold-out performance and a very warm welcome back to Singapore! This is your 7th (or is it 8th?) trip to perform here, what do you think of the audience here in Singapore and are they different elsewhere?

I beginning to lose count myself of how many times I’ve played in Singapore! But I do always enjoy coming here—the energy of the society is almost palpable. And it’s certainly visible. The Gardens at the Bay, and the new developments across the water from the Esplanade seem to be straight out of the future—H.G. Wells’ Shape of things to Come has obviously arrived. In fact, I’m not sure Wells could have imagined anything quite like Marina Bay these days!

As far as audiences are concerned, there does seem to be a lively open-mindedness and curiosity in Singapore about Classical music. And Singapore is of course the ideal bridge between Western and Eastern cultures. The more moribund “old folks home” aspects of the European Classical music tradition haven’t quite reached here yet—luckily. There’s a sense of engagement, and some really splendid native talent. A couple of years ago at a masterclass I heard two Singaporean pianists in their relatively early teens play respectively one of the Liszt Paganini Studies and the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue with tremendous verve and panache. It reminded me of what Liszt once said about Chopin’s student Karl Filtsch: when younger folk like this start to tour, then the older players ought to think about shutting up shop!

Since this year your entire recital is focused on Bach, let’s talk a bit about his music. Bach is probably the most arranged/transcribed composer in the history of music, and his music (or some variations or extracts of them) has been used in commercials, movies and a lot of popular culture. Why do you think this is so?

Well, to quote Ben Johnson’s comment on Shakespeare, J.S. Bach “isn’t for an age, but for all time”. And his music also seems less tied to specific instruments or formats than most other music. Bach himself was an inveterate arranger; his own music can accordingly be adapted, or can adapt itself, to a myriad of guises—the quality always shines through. Sometimes it seems even better in an arrangement stripped of the limitations of its original incarnation. I know this sounds like sacrilege to some people, but I do find the Bach-Busoni Chaconne for piano to be more powerful than the original for violin. The potential in the music reaches its fulfilment on the piano, whereas the piece seems to be striving desperately for the unattainable on the violin. Of course, the latter is a different artistic aim. As usual, it’s a matter of taste.

(Bach’s Chaconne for Solo Violin, BWV 1004 found here)

Which is your favourite work of Bach’s and why?

To take a work as a whole, probably the B-minor Mass for its concentrated grandeur. I find the St Matthew Passion—I’m sorry—a little too long overall. On the other hand, the opening chorus, “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is certainly one of the most stunning pieces of music ever written by anyone—utterly incomparable in its intensity—and the closing chorus one of the most moving ever written. So perhaps my favourite piece is the St Matthew Passion with a few cuts in the middle?

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo
Benvenuto Busoni
(what a cool name!),
conductor, editor, teacher, writer

It’s fascinating how some composers can put in so much of their character and yet retain the essence of Bach’s music. I am, of course, speaking of Busoni’s, Rachmaninoff’s and Liszt’s, and also everyone else in the compilation of the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. Which is your favourite Bach transcriber or transcription?

In this respect, the “lifetime achievement” award certainly goes to Busoni, both for quantity and quality. He had an almost uncanny affinity with Bach, even if the sound world of his transcriptions might have been largely unrecognisable to old Bach himself. My favourite Busoni transcriptions are the Chaconne, and two of the Chorale Preludes: “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” and “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ”. I played the former Prelude in one of my concerts in Singapore a couple of years ago, and I’ll play the latter on Saturday, but as a prelude to Liszt’s “Weinen, klagen” Variations.

I realised a while ago that “Ich ruf zu Dir” fits like a glove with the Liszt, which is itself far more of an original work than a transcription. After the increasingly frenzied anguish in the main part of the piece has been exhausted, Liszt closes with a profoundly moving consolatory chorale, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” “Whatever God does is for the best”. He was reflecting on the death of his children, Daniel and Blandine. It finally brings the piece back into the world of the chorale prelude—or back to Bach, as it were.

Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach,
played and recorded on
Moog Synthesizers

There have been a few, umm, interesting versions of Bach around, including Jacques Loussier’s jazz trio arrangements from 1959 and Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach of 1968. Not to mention, the (not so) recent ones where electric guitars play Bachian riffs in rock songs.. Have there been any which get you irritated or annoyed?

I’m annoyed by almost anything played on an electric guitar….

Finally, to end off our short interview, could you list and describe, in 50 words each, 3 things in western culture that would not have been possible if Bach had never existed?

1. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is imbued with Bach, albeit a Wagnerian Bach, and is one of the most magnificent hymns to German culture not actually written by Bach himself.

2. Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, which I’ve always found touchingly nostalgic, maybe even because I’ve never really understood what the words were supposed to be telling me.

3. Boring first-year music students with Riemenschneider’s astonishingly dull collection of Bach Chorales, set down as if on a supermarket conveyor belt one after the other, utterly shorn of context or meaning. I’ve often wondered how many students decided after this to drop music in favour of a career manning a checkout.

I hope you enjoy the concert!

Come face to face with Kenneth Hamilton as he traces the connections Back to Bach! This recital happens on 19 April 2014 at the Esplanade Recital Studio at 1930 hrs, and is sponsored by the Steinway Gallery Singapore and the University of Cardiff.

Meanwhile, here’s the Wagner-Liszt Tannhäuser Overture played by him:

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