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Arguably Italy's leading contemporary composer, Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947) is represented here by seven works for piano, all of which are performed by Nicolas Hodges. The title of the disc – Nocturnes: Complete Piano Works, 1994-2001 – is perhaps a little deceptive: Sciarrino's Fifth Piano Sonata, not complete but recorded here in the guise of two of its five possible endings, opens and closes the album, and the fragmentary Polveri laterali (Lateral dust-particles), at only a minute-and-a-half long, is Hodges's penultimate offering.
Technically impressive though Hodges's performances of these works are, the real highlights for the listener are the nocturnes sandwiched in between. Here too, however, the perceptive listener should not allow their titles to mislead! We might expect the nocturne at the turn of the last century to be a very different animal to the alluring and melancholic prototypes of Field and Chopin, but even so, Sciarrino's examples are relations in name alone. The Italian's 'night world' is evident only rarely. The delicate Third Nocturne (1998) is a demonstration of it at its best: a repetitive motivic flourish is slow to develop but holds the work together – nervously – while other gestures, which might appear on a first hearing to be improvisatory, entertainingly dance around. (Of course, with Sciarrino, this in itself is an illusion). Hodges exerts masterful control in his performance of this impressive work, but if the music might be said to evoke the late style of Sciarrino's compatriot, Luigi Nono, then comparisons are lost on most of the remaining nocturnes. The Fourth Nocturne was composed during the same year as the third, but its exploration of the piano, in particular its extremity of register, does not engage the listener equally. Perhaps a clue to their purpose, and that of most of the music on this disc, is that this nocturne grew out of collaboration between Hodges and the composer. The physicality of the piano as an instrument is a theme continued by Due Notturni Crudeli (Two Cruel Nocturnes), composed in 2000-01, and, as their title implies, the album's harshest, most percussive numbers. Again, their technical virtuosity, together with repetitive elements, risks making them appear more akin to (post)modern piano studies. But while their aggression is extreme – and in their aural bombardment, equally 'cruel' to listener as to performer – they brim with inventive musical ideas, too. Sciarrino's sleevenotes are typically enigmatic, but they do confirm how important it was to him to have Hodges at his disposal during his composition of many of the works found here. In this respect, this is the most telling explanation of why this music exists: its appreciation is central to its understanding.
Allow the composer a final word of praise, then, on his friendship with Hodges, which he says grew 'out of my surprise that a young man, having no contact with the author, could interpret pieces as difficult as mine. It wasn't just the technical mastery, but the familiarity and depth of his performances that roused my enthusiasm.' Chris Dromey - Musical Criticism