Bill Hopkins

Bill Hopkins: Complete Piano Music.  Col Legno WWE 1CD 20042

Nicolas Hodges, piano.
  Hopkins was born in Prestbury, Cheshire in 1943 and died suddenly in 1981 aged only 37.  Rather than ponder ‘might-have-beens’ it is perhaps more pressing to explore the reality of his small output, a task made all the more easy by this release which includes Hopkins’s first acknowledged work, Sous-structures (1965) and the large scale Etudes en série (1965-72).  As a pendant, so to speak, two pieces from an earlier version of the Etudes en série are included under the title Ebauches.  Hopkins is not new to the CD catalogue, several chamber works of great refinement and beauty having been recorded on NMC together with works by Anthony Gilbert.  The young Hopkins benefited from an extraordinary list of teachers; Nono, Wellesz, Rubbra, Messiaen and Barraqué.  On a superficial level his own music might seem to show the influence mainly of his French teachers and perhaps reflect the pianistic voice of Boulez, yet Hopkins has his own style that can be characterised by an extreme lyricism and a fondness for the repetition or evolution of cells and pitches.  If there is a meditative quality to these pieces at times, it is never one that results in stasis; there is momentum even in the gentlest of his utterances.  This is achieved by a wonderfully subtle approach to rhythm.  Hopkins rhythmic fluidity propels his music and helps him create, when required,  large structural paragraphs. 
  The first work on the CD is Sous-structures, which the composer dedicated to Rubbra.  This work falls into 5 movements or substructures whose moods are highly contrasted.  The dark, rough opening piece gives way to the puckish flurries of the 2nd.  Suspended rolled chords characterise the opening of the 3rd piece.  An eel-like monody follows before a lovely set of chords concludes it.  The 4th piece is full of expressive gestures and flourishes.  The last piece is violent and in some ways a counterpart to the opening movement.

  The Etudes en série consist of 9 pieces in three books in the grouping 4, 2 and 3. The first of them presents melodies vying with each other before a short explosive climax.  The second is noble and serious in tone initially but soon becomes more fragmented and peppered with suggestive little fanfares whose action on the music, while more playful in tone, is not dissimilar to those rhythmic fragments of almost military threat that often pervade the music of Humphrey Searle.  Etude three is volatile in nature and sustains it’s argument through rhythmic momentum and contrast.  At about 4 minutes in, there is an extraordinary passage of chiming repeated notes and chords whose spell is only broken by a short fast coda.  No. 4 begins with suspended webs of harmonies and melodies ranging over the whole keyboard, in a mood of tremulous ecstasy.  Later the music becomes full of trills and arabesques.  Two big etudes follow; nos. 5 and 6.  The broad sweeping lines of no. 5 are followed by the slightly gentler no. 6 in which trills make a further appearance, at times evoking a world not so far from Scriabin’s 10th Piano Sonata.  Both composers seem expert at exploring the potential of resonance inherent in the piano.  Hopkins even at times comes close to the Russian’s characteristic sense of harmonic obsession without of course using the Mystic chord.  Etude no. 7 is a gentle, heart-rending miniature and uses the higher register of the piano.  No. 8 is the largest of the set at some 13 minutes and is highly dramatic, full of knotted melodies and thrusting inner parts.  Later, there are little havens of calm sounds amid the activity. The ending is violent apart from a tiny throw away fragment.  The cycle ends with the rich baritonal melodies of no. 9 that are surrounded by high pitched chimes and later trills.  A brief and resolute sounding confluence of lines ends the work.  Etudes en série is not just good music, it is surely a classic. In terms of British piano music of recent years it deserves equal stature with, to name but a few, Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, the sonatas of Truscott or the Verdi Transcriptions of Finnissy.  Suffice it to say that Hopkins sounds nothing like any of those masters yet his work gives added evidence to the wealth of fine music for the piano written within these shores.

  The two Ebauches are short, gentle and lyrical.  Although ultimately not used in the final form of Etudes en série they are nevertheless not rejected chippings, but gems of rare worth; they perfectly conclude the CD

  The limpidity and hypnoticism of Hopkins’s music are captured by pianism of exquisite tenderness.  Even in loud passages Nicolas Hodges never forces the tone of the instrument, allowing it to resonate through the natural richness of the harmony.  This is not to say however that the pianist neglects the structure of the music in order to wallow in it’s purely sonic effects, irresistible though they are; on the contrary, Hodges controls the music admirably investing it with the essential sense of forward motion that it demands.  The recording seems good and the piano is a mellow sounding Steinway that only occasionally hints that it might have benefited from more attention from the tuner.
  The output of Hopkins is tantalisingly small and judging by his writings about his own work he was a composer concerned with the difficulties of creative work almost to the point of complete denial. His thoughts seem to have been stimulated by his reading of Beckett.  There is even the suggestion, hinted at by Paul Griffiths in his book ‘Modern Music that the very possibility of composition had become by the late 70’s a deep philosophical problem for the composer; his planned opera that was to have taken place silently inside the head of the single protagonist was a compositional gambit not likely to have led him out of deep introspection, let alone to actual audible music.  Nevertheless the music he did write is beautiful, fascinating and important and should now become more widely known thanks to this new release.

David Hackbridge Johnson