Written by: Duncan Hadfield
This year’s Proms season celebrates the centenaries of two significant British composers – Edmund Rubbra and Gerald Finzi. Just four years younger was another interesting English voice, that of Constant Lambert.
Precocious and individualistic, Lambert made his mark as a composer when still young; later in life he was Music Director of the Vic-Wells (later Sadler’s Wells) Ballet. A hectic lifestyle coupled with a rapacious appetite for the ’finer things’ (especially alcohol) took its toll. He died in 1951 at the age of 46; so the Proms is also marking the 50th anniversary of his death.
The exotic choral extravaganza, The Rio Grande, will be played on the Last Night. In the meantime, in the late-night Prom on Wednesday, August 29, there’s the opportunity to hear an early Piano Concerto by him when the Britten Sinfonia and Nicholas Cleobury is joined by a champion of rare British keyboard fare, Philip Fowke.
Fowke is immediately enthusiastic about the pedigree of Lambert’s composition. “It was following the death of his friend Peter Warlock by suicide in 1930 that inspired Lambert’s concerto for piano and nine instruments of 1931. Yet what we didn’t know for a long time was that whilst still a student, Lambert had sketched out an earlier opus which he conceived for piano, trumpets, timpani and strings – very much in the spiky European neo-classical vein of that era. The project didn’t come to fruition because he only left the piece in a version for two pianos. In 1988 the musicologist, and Lambert devotee, Giles Easterbrook got hold of it and worked it up to the completion Lambert would have wanted to hear.”
“Yes, Lambert was very young when he wrote this concerto, but one could say the same about the music of many very gifted composers – I mean, how many piano concertos had Mozart come up with by before he was 20? One gets as a result energy and the inquisitiveness of youth. Cast in four pithy movements, the concerto shows the influence of many European contemporaries, such as Satie, Stravinsky, Poulenc, maybe Bartok. On the other hand, there’s something very distinct and individual about it – a virtuoso vehicle, with the piano writing quite athletic, encompassing a great deal of inner energy, dynamism and propulsion.”
“What do I think about Lambert as a whole?Well, perhaps I should say that I’m not of the opinion that anyone has to be an extraordinary out-and-out genius before they can be deemed worthwhile. Lambert is evidently a significant and intriguing composer in his own considerable right; and like quite a few other very talented musicians he was almost too diverse for his own good – for example, he had considerable literary gifts, he had this ferocious and pioneering devotion to the ballet, and he was a respected conductor and administrator. It all amounts to a great deal to have packed into what tragically turned out to be a fairly short life. And on top of that he did leave us with this small but highly chiselled canon of pieces – I don’t think he wrote a dud work.”
“But maybe my argument, if one wants to call it that, comes from the fact that I’ve always championed a number of voices who I think are not being given their due, which is maybe why they’ve asked me to play Lambert at the Proms. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the Viennese classics like the next man but I sometimes think that the diet of them is too rich. There’s so much rewarding music; I could name Delius, Ireland, Bliss, Rubbra, Rawsthorne, all of whom wrote marvellous piano music.”
“Yes, I’m fifty now. I recently gave my 50th-birthday concert at the Wigmore. But I’ve by no means lost the appetite yet. There’s a great deal to do and I’m very busy. On top of recital and concerto engagements, I also play chamber music with my own London Piano Quartet. Beyond all that, I’m a Fellow of Keyboard at Trinity College and, come the autumn, the college is leaving its home in Marylebone to take up exciting new premises in Greenwich. In the meantime I’m looking forward to making what will be my twelfth Proms appearance next Wednesday. Late Night Lambert – it should be good.”
- BBC Proms 2001 – Lambert Piano Concerto, Royal Albert Hall, 29 August, at 10 o’clock (Prom 52)
- >Click here to read David Wordsworth’s review of the “Late Night Lambert” Prom, featuring Finzi’s “Farewell to Arms” and “Romance”