Pedalling furiously

Nicolas Hodges is a pianist in a hurry to bring contemporary music to a wider audience. Now he has enlisted Elliott Carter's help. By TIM STEIN
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The Independent Culture

Nicolas Hodges is on a roll. An adrenalin rush, if you like. When he meets me at the BBC studios in Maida Vale, north London, fresh from rehearsals of Erikhthon, a rarely performed concerto by Iannis Xenakis ("it has been played only twice before, as far as I know," he tells me with alacrity), the golden-locked, 34-year-old British pianist is only too eager to share with me the delights of Dialogues, a new piano concerto written for him by Elliott Carter, the great nonagenarian American composer. He is premiering the piece at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on Friday night with Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta. "It's a fantastic opportunity," he says, with infectious enthusiasm.

Aptly described in the press release as "a conversation between the soloist and the orchestra", this one-movement, 15-minute, chamber-like work is a piece that Hodges has had to learn quickly, having been presented with the finished score "without warning" in the summer of 2002. He is evidently overawed by his good fortune, and I ask him how exactly the commission came about in the first place. One assumes you can't just turn up on a composer's doorstep and ask him to write you a concerto - especially a composer of Carter's distinction. "Though I had been playing a good deal of his music for most of the Nineties, pieces such as 90+ and Two Dialogues," Hodges tells me, "it was actually after I attended the premiere of his opera What Next? a few years ago in New York - where I was lucky enough to visit him and play some of his pieces to him at his apartment - that I hatched the idea of asking him to write me something. I simply wrote to him with a suggestion.

"And though everyone thought it wouldn't happen, because he's phenomenally busy and so well known and, really, because I didn't know him terribly well, to my great surprise he said yes. Then the BBC gave me some money, and", Hodges beams beatifically, "that was that."

Is there, I ask him, anything new compositionally (at least new to Carter) in Dialogues? "The only thing, I suppose," he says, lifting a spankingly clean score from his satchel, "is his use of the piano's sostenuto [sustain] pedal, which he uses quite a lot - most likely a reaction," he laughs, "to my asking why he didn't make use of this device before. I think he was afraid that on some pianos the pedal wouldn't work properly, until I assured him that it most certainly would. Those pedal markings, then, were a really nice gesture."

Hodges has just recorded, for ECM, some piano works by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, with whom he has a special affinity; in March, he is to record Michael Finnissy's arrangements of Gershwin for Metronome; in May, he will be playing the on-stage piano part for the Munich premiere of Brian Ferneyhough's opera Shadowtime. Noting this abundance of contemporary works (with numerous studio recordings and live premieres in particular) in his diary, I ask if this isn't all a far cry from his first major success, in 1995, as an "all Beethoven" pianist at a piano competition near Ancona, Italy, at the "relatively advanced" age of 25.

"That's the funny thing with careers. You never know where the musical balance is going to be," says the Cambridge graduate, whose most abiding musical memory is of singing Bach motets as a 12-year-old Christ Church chorister. Oh, and singing on Blue Peter and Simon Rattle's famous recording of Britten's War Requiem - "a truly great experience". He didn't bother much with competitions after Ancona, "just feeling lucky enough to be placed, which made a huge difference to me". He adds, diffidently: "I didn't take first prize, but the boost in confidence, because of both the intense preparation and the prize itself, was enormous."

Hodges stopped playing contemporary music (if you can believe that) for a few years after the competition, "to take a sabbatical" and to concentrate on private lessons ("almost daily!" he exclaims) with the redoubtable Russian pianist and teacher Sulamita Aronovsky, a classmate of the now legendary pianists and teachers Tatiana Nikolayeva and Dimitri Bashkirov in the Fifties. His other, equally influential teacher was Susan Bradshaw (an associate of Boulez and Hans Keller), who no doubt helped to counterbalance a "highly intensive, Russian-style training".

Hodges firmly believes that the intensity of study ("it wasn't a conservatoire training in the traditional sense"), the length of training and the development of a relationship with one teacher are what have made him such an ideal pianist for the contemporary composer. "I'm interested in pieces over the long term, the development of a work over a period of time, the relationship with a particular ensemble or a composer," he says, keen to stress that he doesn't want to be known as a "premiering machine". Moreover, modern-day composers know that he has been steeped in two kinds of musical cultures, "which is not often the case with pianists who play lots of contemporary music". And this is why he seemed to get on so well with Carter. "We spoke about all kinds of things," he says - "Schumann... Donizetti opera - he can talk like an opera critic, not a rebarbative contemporary composer, if he has to. Even comparisons between the last acts of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Berg's Wozzeck," he recalls admiringly.

Now that Hodges is emerging as one of today's finest young talents, destined for pianistic stardom since his mother (a professional singer) and father (an organ builder and BBC sound engineer) introduced him to the delights of Schubert and Mahler lieder as a young child, I thought it only fair to ask him for his comments on the state of contemporary music. Hodges believes that, even in a world where the whole classical-music industry seems to be lacking direction, contemporary music is gradually becoming more integrated into general concert life. "And even if this is not the case," he adds vehemently, "I'm going to continue to believe this and continue to build my programmes accordingly in order to make sure that it happens."

As if I need proof of his convictions, he cites the kind of concert programmes he was giving at the Purcell Room (three years running) a few years back, of works by composers such as Sciarrino, Debussy, James Clarke and Liszt. "The hall was full, and the audience loved it," he says. "There were people there who would never have dreamt of going to a contemporary concert. But because the repertoire was intelligently planned, it really worked."

With future projects including recordings of Schumann, Cage and Stravinsky in 2004, the Debussy Etudes in 2005, performances of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and the Hammerklavier in 2005 and 2006, plus several concerto commissions in the offing from the likes of two up-and-coming thirty-something composers, Alwynne Pritchard and Rebecca Saunders, it would seem that Hodges has quite a lot to juggle.

Perhaps, then, it's just as well he will be playing Carter's Dialogues soon, a work so economical, he says, that all you feel like doing afterward is smashing plates. A welcome tonic, surely, giving a much-needed sense of release. "There are fewer notes than in, say, Mozart, like so many composers' late music. But because of this, because of all the detail, it's full of increased concentration. There's so much you want to control, there's so much tension in the forehead - as Schnabel would have said - that you feel you really need an outlet for this pent-up energy. It's such a wonderful experience to play it, and it feels so good under the hands, that I know that coming off stage at the end of the concert is going to be a life-changing experience."

Nicolas Hodges' world premiere of Elliott Carter's 'Dialogues', with the London Sinfonietta, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, Friday