He learned at the feet of a great composer
PETER HILL, piano
Music of Bach and Messiaen
At: Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $15. 617-912-9222; www.bostonconservatory.edu
Peter Hill’s first encounter with Olivier Messiaen had him looking up to the great composer. Literally.
Hill, a British pianist and scholar who plays a recital at Boston Conservatory next Tuesday, came to Paris in 1986 at Messiaen’s behest while Hill was recording all the composer’s piano music. Presenting himself at the apartment Messiaen shared with his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, Hill was ushered into a study and directed to sit in what Hill, speaking by phone, describes as “a rather strange looking armchair that was made of some kind of orange plastic.’’ He eyed it skeptically and lowered himself carefully to sit. The chair promptly collapsed.
“And therefore I began my first session with Messiaen on the floor,’’ he says, “with the great man sort of peering down at me slightly concerned, lest I find myself injured. It’s one of those moments that still wakes me up at night.’’
Fortunately, this inauspicious encounter did nothing to dampen Hill’s enthusiasm for Messiaen’s works. In the years since he has become an authority on the French composer’s ecstatic, clangorous music, which he first encountered as an undergraduate at Oxford University in the 1960s. Almost immediately on his arrival there, he was conscripted by a student new-music group to play one of the parts of the two-piano piece “Visions de l’Amen.’’ Even today “Visions’’ is demanding stuff for both performer and listener; back then, its difficulty and unfamiliar language must have made it seem almost alien. And Hill had about three days to learn his part.
“And I looked at it - it’s about 100 pages long - and thought, my God, what are these students at Oxford like?’’ he recalls, laughing. “At that stage, there were several passages that I couldn’t begin to think how anyone could really play them.’’
The performance may not have been the ultimate in thorough preparation but it did spark Hill’s interest in what he calls “the way over the top’’ aspect of the composer’s vision, where “the emotion is absolutely on maximum and then a bit more, you know. It’s Messiaen at his most extreme.’’
At the other end of the spectrum is the rarely played “Cantéyodjayâ,’’ a drily dissonant piece written during a visit to Tanglewood in 1949. It’s on Tuesday’s program, which Hill calls “a kind of taster’’ of Messiaen’s piano writing. There are also multiple entries from the composer’s “Catalogue d’oiseaux,’’ a large collection of bird portraits. (Ornithology was a major preoccupation for the composer.) Each half of the program opens with a prelude and fugue by Bach, the second book of whose “Well-Tempered Clavier’’ Hill has just recorded.
Hill began recording the Messiaen piano music in the 1980s and was introduced to the composer at the British premiere of one of his organ works. The pianist expected little more than a polite nod, but instead Messiaen looked at him sharply and said, as Hill recalls, “I’ve heard about you, you’re the person who’s recording all my piano music. You’d better come to Paris right away so I can hear you play it.’’
It was, he remembers, “a kind of royal command, with a hint of menace about it, too.’’
That led Hill to Paris and his encounter with the armchair. And for the first few minutes after that unfortunate occurrence, as Hill began playing, he could seemingly do nothing right.
“It was, louder, softer, faster, more pedal, less pedal - that sort of thing.’’ Hill was about to give up and take his leave when suddenly Messiaen went silent and simply listened. “And when I turned to him at the end, I’d obviously passed the audition, because clearly the sun was out.’’
The two became friends for the remainder of the composer’s life, and after his death Hill and musicologist Nigel Simeone were the first to be granted access to the archive of papers that Loriod, Messiaen’s widow, had carefully assembled. Their magisterial biography, published in 2005 by Yale University Press, is far and away the best source of information, at least in English, about the composer’s life and work.
Hill learned a lot about Messiaen as a person during his research, but one anecdote from his years of friendship sums up for him Messiaen’s character. In 1992, Hill arrived home from a vacation to find two letters from Loriod. The first informed him that Messiaen had died and detailed the funeral arrangements. The second, which had clearly been written first, had been written from the composer’s hospital room, thanking Hill for a bird book he’d sent recently. The image of the composer taking the time, in his final days, to thank a friend for a gift still touches Hill deeply.
“This had obviously been written in the hospital room where he lay dying. He was a wonderful composer, and she was an incredible pianist. But what incredible human beings, that you should do that at such a time. It sort of gives me goose bumps to think of it, really.’’
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.