Difficult technically, quite flashy to play, and one of my first truly grown-up pieces. Susan Bradshaw gave the premiere on Radio 3; David Mason played it in the Park Lane Group Young Artists Series; and Klaus Hellwig (now professor at the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin) performed it in Germany, Turkey and the USA.
Canto for piano was written in November 1973, and was first performed by Susan Bradshaw in a recital broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in autumn 1974. The first live performances were given by Klaus Hellwig in November-December 1976, when he played it in a number of recitals in Europe, including at the Purcell Room in London, in Wittingen and Essen in Germany and Izmir in Turkey. In January 1981, David Mason performed the piece at the Park Lane Young Artists Series.
Canto for piano is the second of a series of five pieces for solo instruments with this generic title – for violin, piano, clarinet, cello and flute (so far). It lasts about ten minutes, and is cast in one continuous movement.
After a high, tinkling introduction, the material is exposed in a free, recitative-like melody which is punctuated at several points by a high, brittle chord taken from the introductory tinkling. The remainder of the piece is an exploration of this material. Towards the end, a glancing reference to boogy-woogy leads to a climax of hair-raising pianistic virtuosity – interrupted at one point by a brief and unexpected interlude in C major. When I showed the score to Messiaen in 1977, he was baffled by the childish simplicity of this interruption; he asked me whether this was an example of English humour. I could only reply that I felt the listener deserved a break from crashing and banging, and this seemed to me what was needed. I don’t think he was entirely convinced by this explanation.
After the climax, the tinkling introductory phrase reappears; and a final, almost inaudible 12-note cluster serves as gentle gesture of farewell.
Review of a performance of Canto for piano by David Mason at a Park Lane Group concert in 1981:
“Mr Mason . . . made the piano sound like some wild animal. And though extremes of variety are written into the piece, I hardly expected to hear such frenzied rampaging up and down the keyboard, such hymn-like simplicity and roundness, such fearsome weight in the bass, such crisp rhythms and such shimmering seas of resonances – at least not from one pianist in the space of ten minutes.”
Paul Griffiths (The Times)