Concertino in G minor [ed. David Ellis]
Piano Concerto No.1 [original version]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 28 & 29 September 2008 in CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: August 2009
CD No: SOMM
Duration: 70 minutes
Howard Ferguson (1908-99) wrote a small corpus of really well-crafted works, numbering around twenty, among these the charming Concerto for Piano and Strings. Written as a commission to mark the Festival of Britain, in 1951, it had its first performance in Belfast. A later performance in New York with Dame Myra Hess with Efrem Kurtz conducting drew a dismissive review from Olin Downes, music critic of the New York Times. As Bruce Phillips writes in the booklet, Ferguson’s reaction may well have been to begin to cease writing music, which he did after writing The Dream of the Rood in 1958. Thereafter, he devoted his time to musicology.
In three contrasting movements, the first and longest grabs one’s attention at the outset, music of vitality, strength and acerbic wit. The central Theme and Variations evinces brooding sadness with its flavour of Ireland and the mood changes to one of cheerful high spirits in the finale. Mark Bebbington conjures up a wide variety of colours in his playing, the quick passages sparkle with effortless speed, and the slow movement has him produce rich, creamy sounds.
Gerard Finzi’s Eclogue is much in the idiom of his “Dies natalis” and was intended to be the slow movement for a piano concerto. It has an autumnal flavour; the sadness of passed time, which Bebbington puts across with sensitivity.
Frederic Austin (1872-1952) was one of the finest baritones of the early part of the 20th-century, performing with Elgar, Beecham and Weingartner, among others, and gave several important first performances. He retired from singing in 1920, a good few years before electrical recording, thereafter concentrating on composition and teaching, his first ‘retirement’ piece being his edition of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera”. The Concertino dates from 1944; the score and orchestral parts stamped “Ealing Film Studios – Music Dept.” on each page. It is thought this work is a result of Austin’s friendship with the composer and conductor Ernest Irving (1878-1953, who wrote music for such films as “Whisky Galore!” and the George Formby vehicle “Turned Out Nice Again”, and to whom Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his Sinfonia antartica). Although Austin had written music for film since 1935, it remains a mystery for what this Concertino was intended.
Bebbington announces the somewhat martial theme of the opening movement with pomp and aplomb, and then the sad slow one allows for effective contributions from solo strings. The last movement, longer than the other two combined, is a quick high-spirited affair. The version played here is for piano, strings and percussion and the timpani is occasionally a little too insistent. Nonetheless, it is an attractive work and this premiere recording bears repeated listening.
As originally conceived, Alan Rawsthorne’s First Piano Concerto also receives its first recording, music first performed by Alfred Hallis in 1939 and scored for piano, strings and percussion. Following Rawsthorne’s revision in 1942, for full orchestra, this first version rather dropped out of sight, a pity as it works very well.
Bebbington and the CBSO relish music that might be described as ‘Poulenc with an edge’; even when Rawsthorne is being tart, the wit and vivacity remain. His writing for piano demands a secure technique – Bebbington once again shows effortless virtuosity that takes your breath away. The middle movement, ‘Chaconne’, finds Bebbington perfectly understanding the gentle bittersweet mood.
The strings of the CBSO seem fewer in number than the full complement, enhancing the chamber-music aspects of these works. The piano is firmly integrated into the overall balance, the overall effect combining warmth and clarity. I look forward eagerly to Somm’s forthcoming recording of works by Arnold Bax with Bebbington.