Ivor Gurney & Howard Ferguson

0 of 5 stars

Four Unpublished Pieces: Despair; Sehnsucht; Song of the Summer Woods; The Sea
Nocturne in B
Nocturne in A flat
Sonata in F minor
Five Bagatelles

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Recorded April 2004 in St Paul’s Church, Birmingham

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: September 2004
Duration: 74 minutes

Having recorded for Somm a splendid CD of the music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Mark Bebbington once again makes the strongest possible case for little-known piano pieces. The recording quality here is clear and present, and the instrument pellucid in timbre, maybe too much so at times. There are also occasional electronic clicks; but the rarity of the music and Bebbington’s concentrated renditions of it makes the passing gremlin insignificant.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was born in Gloucester. He experienced action in World War One that seems to have exacerbated existing mental instability. Yet this selection of his music, which straddles that epic conflict, displays little by way of change of idiom, signs of irrationality, or any lasting influences from being gassed and shell-shocked. In reality, though, Gurney was institutionalised in 1922 and remained so until his death.

The four unpublished pieces that begin Bebbington’s recital are gently melodic, musing, maybe a little Chopinesque, the economy of the pieces in no way hindering personal, very touching expression. The two Nocturnes, also pre-war, are subtle and shifting pieces that are further examples of Gurney’s quiet if eloquent voice, rather improvisatory, suggestive of the salon, but with a depth of feeling that Bebbington conveys with innate sensitivity. (In the A flat Nocturne, a really lovely piece, a car horn is heard at 3’13”!)

The post-war Preludes, 1919 and 1920, are more elusive, lonelier and more fragile, maybe in search of something intangible, with a suggestion of Fauré (also noticeable in the Nocturnes), and occasionally reminding of Brahms’s late piano pieces. It is rare that the music is either fast or fortissimo; the attention is held by the music’s unexpected rhythms and harmonies, and by Bebbington’s devotion to it. Two versions of Prelude No.9 are included, the second one, like the unpublished pieces, being previously unrecorded.

Howard Ferguson (1908-99) hailed from Belfast and died in Cambridge. During the Second War he was in London, a co-organiser of the National Gallery Concerts. Noted as a music editor, Ferguson’s output as a composer is not huge, but it is distinctive. His Piano Sonata, first played in 1940 by Myra Hess, is a work of substance, its three movements deeply expressed, turbulent and epic, a big, serious piece in which nothing frivolous or fragrant intrudes into an outpouring of anguish – yet without bombast, obviousness or selfishness. The haunting slow movement is initially tender and eloquent and builds to something darker, more demonstrative and sad. The finale, knotty and defiant, is no easy culmination, and certainly offers no solutions.

In contrast, Ferguson’s Five Bagatelles are pithy statements, no time wasted in establishing the remit of each; they make an engagingly contrasted sequence.

Once again Mark Bebbington displays total conviction in his choice of repertoire and, in turn, inspires the listener. His compelling advocacy suddenly makes this music important.

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