Variations on a Ukrainian Folk Song, Op.9
Farewell to Hirta
Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année Italie
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 23 June, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Following his recent British piano sonata epic (at St John’s, Smith Square), Mark Bebbington here featured further unfamiliar British pieces alongside a rare complete outing for one of the highpoints of mid-Romantic pianism.
A pity that piano music is largely absent from Sir Malcolm Arnold’s maturity, as the Variations on a Ukrainian Folk Song (1944) indicates a keen aptitude for the medium. Not only do the variations bring out the theme’s harmonic and rhythmic subtlety, but they build into an appreciably cumulative form whose gathering momentum is thrown into relief by the brief but intense canon of Variation V and the more elaborate nocturne that is Variation XI – the sequence capped by a fantasia that effectivelysummarises the whole work, and also brings its long-range tonal trajectory to a powerful conclusion.
Qualities that Bebbington’s resourceful and assuredly ‘long-term’ view of the piece brought out in full measure, and there were comparable insights to be found in the Piano Sonata (1929) by Constant Lambert. Coming between the joie de vivre of “The Rio Grande” and acerbic stoicism of the Concerto for Piano and Nine Players (1931), the piece captures the idiom of its still-youthful composer at a crucial juncture: the alternately ‘jazzy’ and ‘bluesy’ feel of the first movement’s main themes building to a climax of uninhibited yet somehow undecided expression, and a central nocturne that is insinuating and unsettling in equal measure. Not for a moment did Bebbington under-characterise this music, nor did he hold back from projecting the finale’s pointed contrasts between fugal intricacy and more populist directness – climaxing in a coda whose resonant chordal ‘blocks’ evince decisiveness and desperation in equal measure. A fine performance of a fine if disquieting near-masterpiece.
The first half concluded with two short and complementary pieces by Francis Pott – a composer now in his late-forties, and with an extensive range of instrumental and vocal music to his credit. Farewell to Hirta (1986) is an elegy inspired by the cultural demise of the population of the St Kilda islands in the North Atlantic – one which culminated with its evacuation to the Scottish mainland in 1930 – though little, if any, of this would be evident from the music alone; its gradually unfolding and ratherSchubertian (as the composer himself points out) harmonies, along with its gently eddying rhythmic motion, evoking images of calm if poignant regret. Bebbington played it with due poise, and was equal to the technical hurdles of Toccata (1996) – an exercise in determinedly, but not mindlessly, virtuosopianism that ought to be taken up by pianists for whom the comparable challenges of John McCabe’s Variations on a Theme of Liszt or, indeed, Ronald Stevenson’s Peter Grimes Fantasy hold no terrors.
Mention of the McCabe, which utilises a theme from Liszt’s ‘Dante Sonata’ for its variations, makes a not inappropriate link into this recital’s second half. Although it comprises the best known of Liszt’s three volumes collectively entitled Années de Pèlerinage, Book Two (assembled between 1837 and 1849) is the most difficult to bring off as an entity – lacking either the descriptive variety of the first, ‘Swiss’, volume or the spiritual focus of the Third sequence.
Bebbington went much of the way to overcoming that problem – drawing alluring sonorities from ‘Sposalizio’ and bringing out the soulful demeanour of ‘Il penseroso’, without skimping on the robust playfulness of ‘Canzonetta de Salvator Rosa’. The main difficulty arises with the three ‘settings’ of Petrarch Sonnets – too similar in content and process to be heard in succession, for all that Bebbington strove to point up contrasts in texture (though it may have helped to alternate them with the first three pieces of the volume).
What was undoubted, however, was the effectiveness of ‘Après une lecture du Dante’ as a conceptual and emotional climax to the flow. Other pianists have placed greater emphasis on its technical virtuosity, but few have sought out finer expressive shadings that make this ‘Fantasia quasi Sonata’ among the most resourceful as well as immediate works of Liszt’s maturity. With its signal motif audibly underlying and motivating each stage of his journey into the Inferno, this was as cohesive and satisfying an account as one is likely to hear of what is now an unfairly maligned piece.
Having thus encompassed its extremes of expression, Bebbington went on to provide the Mephisto Polka as an encore – evincing as keen an identity with the very different world of late Liszt.