Malcolm Arnold & Constant Lambert Piano Music – Mark Bebbington

0 of 5 stars

Sonata for Piano in B minor
Two Piano Pieces [Prelude; Romance]
Variations on a Ukrainian Folk-Song, Op.9
Piano Sonata
Suite in three movements
Elegiac Blues

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Recorded 23 & 24 August 2005 in Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2007
Duration: 77 minutes

This handsome collection extends our appreciation of both Malcolm Arnold and Constant Lambert and also of Mark Bebbington. There’s no doubting the pianist’s dedicated response to music that is, rightly or wrongly, off the beaten track; one ‘test’ is his ability to convince that his championing of such ‘byways’ of piano literature is justified. This Bebbington does very persuasively.

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) will be best remembered for his symphonies, concertos, film music, concert overtures and national dances: a veritable feast of melody and colour and often rather more – the raw emotion of ‘being alive’. Piano music is a very small part of his output. The early Sonata is a concise three-movement work from 1942. The first movement is a stylistic melting-pot that is constantly unpredictable (Haydnesque in some respects); the second has echoes of Gershwin (maybe Billy Mayerl is closer to home); and the finale is openly humorous and reminds of a machine that keeps losing its way – one passage suggests a pub sing-a-long! Prelude and Romance, from the following year, both have a bewitching loveliness, what might be termed ‘salon pieces’ but exuding an individuality that announces the young Arnold as aware of much music around him and yet able to sign pieces off entirely under his own moniker.

Both these works are ‘without opus number’. The Variations on a Ukrainian Folk Song (from either 1944 or 1947, Somm’s presentation suggests both – but the work was first heard in 1946) turned out to be both Arnold’s biggest piano work and his last for the instrument alone. Even then it lasts but 15 minutes. The Theme (with quite a melancholic hue) is subjected to ten Variations, which have a ‘Russian’ intensity and specifically, as Bebbington suggests in his contribution to the booklet, a corollary with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but there is also an attractive whimsy to the whole, not least the slinky, samba-like rhythms of Variation VII.

Constant Lambert’s output for piano includes two concertos, The Rio Grande, and the music recorded here. Lambert (1905-51) composed the three-movement Sonata in 1929; it’s a substantial piece (23 minutes in Bebbington’s account) that requites its intricacy while absorbing ‘popular’ music (jazz) into the music’s weave in a wholly innate way. Indeed, the danger might be that the composer’s stratagem would ‘date’ the work; yet here it seems fresh and not at all experimental (as maybe it did at the time of composition). Lambert’s Sonata is a work of strength and purpose, one that constantly evolves through ideas that are formidably inventive and realised but yielding to the most direct of expression at judiciously chosen moments. The work’s construction is of a tensile opening movement followed by a wistful ‘Nocturne’ that grows into scherzo-like passages of syncopation and is ‘crowned’ by a finale (marked ‘Lugubre’) that begins in the depths, but it isn’t long before Lambert’s ‘jazz world’ comes to the fore, again, absorbed into writing that is both knotty and heroic.

The shorter works of Lambert’s that complete the disc include the very unsettled (and unsettling) Elegy (1938), the ethereal and explosive measures of the Suite (the second movement reminds me more of Bartók than Bebbington’s nominated Stravinsky) and Elegiac Blues (written “in memory of Florence Mills”) that seems to relate booze-tinted sad affection.

Mark Bebbington has been exceptionally well recorded. This is a very rewarding release and the excellence is completed by Robert Matthew-Walker’s essay on the two composers (interesting to read about parallels between the two) and Bebbington’s own comments on the music that he plays with obvious pleasure, insight and celebration.

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