Mark Bebbington – Bax & Ireland

0 of 5 stars

Concertino for Piano and Orchestra [Edited and orchestrated by Graham Parlett]
Piano Concerto in E flat
Legend for Piano and Orchestra

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Orchestra of the Swan
David Curtis

Recorded 15 & 16 April 2009 in Town Hall, Birmingham

Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: November 2009
Duration: 71 minutes



Hot on the heels of Somm’s interesting release of British concertante works for piano by Ferguson, Finzi, Austin and Rawsthorne comes an equally rewarding collection of music by Bax and Ireland. Arnold Bax’s Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, described by the composer as “a small concerto”, runs to a minute short of half-an-hour and postdates his seven symphonies. Bax started writing it in 1939, but inspiration was clouded by the build-up towards the Second World War. He managed to complete the first two movements in pencil on two staves and the last in ink as a two-piano score before ceasing any composing whatsoever until early 1942; his appointment as Master of the King’s Music resulted in other commissions taking priority, and his relationship with the intended soloist, Harriet Cohen, had cooled. The manuscript eventually ended up in the British Library.

Graham Parlett, already responsible for editing and orchestrating a number of Bax’s works, has succeeded in presenting this delightful and passionate work for performance seventy years after conception, and this first recording is very welcome. The first movement opens with magical sounds conjuring up a mysterious underwater seascape; majestic themes are used to build to a powerful climax before the movement relaxes back into the quiet opening moods. Mark Bebbington produces the creamiest of quiet playing and loud passages are full, fat and powerful without overtaxing the instrument. The slow movement, which Parlett had to elaborate somewhat, is equally brooding, “dark and threatening”, and again the anguish and wrestling is resolved come its close. The finale is altogether lighter in mood, Bebbington’s delicate passagework a joy to hear, and he is tightly accompanied by Orchestra of the Swan and David Curtis.

John Ireland’s Piano Concerto was completed in 1930, inspired by the relationship with his young composition student, Helen Perkin, and, it is said, by Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto which she played at a Royal College of Music concert. Slightly shorter than Bax’s Concertino, it is nonetheless a big, bold work, a combination of Ireland’s undoubted excellence at writing for piano, and his fine orchestration. And it is a passionate work, too, and one which has secured success over the last eighty years. Bebbington brings out the variety in Ireland’s writing, though I felt the grander climaxes left the orchestra needing greater numbers in the strings.

Legend for piano and orchestra, also written for Helen Perkin, gets a completely successful performance. This mysterious piece has the hallmarks of a musical version of one of M. R. James’s milder short stories, inspired as it was by a vision Ireland had of silent children playing and dancing while he was picnicking on the South Downs, and vanishing as suddenly as they had appeared.

Bebbington’s playing continues to impress with this release, coaxing as he does sounds of great beauty from his instrument. Orchestra of the Swan is based in Stratford-on-Avon, and under David Curtis contribute with intensity and commitment and co-operation. The recorded sound is excellent, the acoustics of the Town Hall, Birmingham allowing climaxes to expand comfortably. The booklet contains two fine essays, one by Graham Parlett outlining his work editing and orchestrating the Bax, the other by Bruce Phillips of the John Ireland Trust giving an interesting account of the genesis of the two Ireland works. This is a very valuable release and will give much pleasure.

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