Anyone who knew the late handlebar-moustachioed, pipe-smoking, bon viveur John Malcolm Smith (1932-2011) will recall a kindly and gregarious man with a great enthusiasm for music, especially of the British variety, and with a fund of stories to illustrate his colourful and diverse life (not least involving Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe and Waiting for Godot). Malcolm, as he was known, made a bequest so that this Naxos recording could be made.
For all its lengthy title, Robin Holloway’s tribute piece lasts but five minutes. The required six hands at the one piano are supplied by John Lill, Leslie Howard and Mark Bebbington – in that order in terms of Primo, Secondo and Terzo. It’s a rather solemn piece if with brighter episodes and includes quotations from ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman’ (to my ears anyway) and certainly ‘Nimrod’ and from Der Rosenkavalier.
Leslie Howard is next up, as pianist and composer. His take on Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore begins with Liszt in B minor, and like Howard’s great hero, this Fantasy is full of enterprise and theatre, very Lisztian in fact, and with a full quotient of familiar Arthur Sullivan tunes. Rest assured that with playing of this quality, Howard’s Fantasy is exactly as its creator wishes it to be. And his arrangement of Handel is tenderly affecting and played eloquently.
This recital includes two notable Piano Sonatas. That by Humphrey Searle (1915-82) once again suggests a composer in much need of rehabilitation. His 18-minute Sonata (1951) is arresting and terse, intriguing, powerful, combative, and when lyricism surfaces it is dark and enigmatic, reminding of late Liszt, and indeed Searle wrote this Sonata to help mark that composer’s 140th-anniversary. Schoenbergian this Sonata may be in terms of its organisation, but it is vividly communicative and emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Julian Jacobson gives a tenacious account, deeply committed to Searle’s cause.
Mark Bebbington essays the other Sonata, by Robert Matthew-Walker (born 1939). It dates from 1980 and is named after Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Full of atmosphere and tension, energy too, this single-movement score teems with invention, of variety controlled with rigour. Neither programmatic nor comprising of character-studies, at least not completely, this Sonata makes a considerable impression in purely musical terms and its 17 minutes pass quickly by leaving the listener keen to hear it again. For all the drive and drama that abounds, around the nine-minute mark such momentum and fervour give way to a beautiful section of much lyrical generosity, rather Ravelian. The composer will probably not be drawn on this, but a pretty picture of Ophelia comes to mind. That the work ends in tragedy – in murky water – seems beyond argument.Finally, and only applicable until November 7, Mark Bebbington gives a fascinatingly ambitious recital on that evening at St John’s, Smith Square, London. He plays pieces by Liszt, John McCabe, Richard Causton, David Briggs and Ian Venables, and also reprises Matthew-Walker’s ‘Hamlet’ Sonata – just the sort of planning that adventurous music-lovers are looking out for. Ditto this Naxos release. Only the Searle has been recorded before.