Mark Bebbington at St James’s Piccadilly – Haydn, Beethoven (Appassionata), John Ireland’s London Pieces, Chopin

Keyboard Sonata in G, Hob.XVI/40
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
London Pieces [Chelsea Reach, Ragamuffin, Soho Forenoons]
Barcarolle, Op.60; Tarantelle, Op.43; Nocturne in F, Op.15 No.1; Scherzo in B flat minor, Op.31

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Reviewed by: Alan Sanders

Reviewed: 17 July, 2014
Venue: St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London

Mark Bebbington. Photograph © Rama KnightOn the eve of the BBC Proms it was good to hear one of Haydn’s keyboard sonatas and to be reminded of the composer’s “extraordinary genius”. News of this ability doesn’t seem to have reached the current Prom planners, who for the second season running have completely excluded Haydn from their concerts. This Sonata (No.54/Hoboken 40) is not one of the greatest in the series, and in his performance Mark Bebbington responded to the first movement marking, Allegro innocente, by playing in a slightly pedantic fashion, viewing the ‘innocence’ rather as a sophisticated person would regard an unknowing individual, instead of letting the music’s wide-eyed spontaneity speak for itself. The second and last movement may be marked Presto but surely it shouldn’t have been rattled off in such a dextrous but featureless, almost condescending, fashion.

Bebbington responded to Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ in a very different fashion. There was much more strength and character in the way he balanced the first movement structure, and here particularly we could admire his fine tone quality throughout a large dynamic range. The pianist approached the Andante con moto (it would have been good to have the movement titles of the Haydn and Beethoven printed in the programme) in an appropriately serious, reverent fashion and in his hands the composer’s depth of inspiration was satisfyingly realised, until near the end, when a certain routine expression crept in. But the finale had admirable toughness as well as brilliance, and the coda was excitingly delivered.

In what was otherwise a programme of conventional recital works the John Ireland pieces seemed very much at odds with such surrounds. Ireland regarded himself, fairly and realistically as a “significant” composer, and in common with his English contemporaries Bax, Bliss and Rawsthorne his style is so individual that experienced listeners can identify his music easily. Following Eric Parkin and Alan Rowlands, Bebbington has championed Ireland’s piano music nobly and effectively through his series of recordings on Somm. On this occasion, too, he well brought out the composer’s characteristic atmosphere of wistfulness and nostalgia that inhabit the three contrasting London Pieces. They evoke impressions of London scenes and experiences that might even have vanished before Ireland painted them in sound.

Chopin’s Barcarolle then emerged in a rather clear-cut, impersonal fashion. Owing partly to lack of rhythmic strength the music tended to wander from its focal point and didn’t quite emerge intact. Secure rhythm was again lacking in an otherwise accurate but somewhat anonymous account of the Tarantelle, and the Nocturne rather lost its way through a lack of authoritative phrasing and also a weak pulse. In the directly expressive B flat Scherzo Bebbington brought life and energy to the music, though there were some oddities of phrase. As an encore he played Liszt’s obscure and eccentric Mephisto Polka. Since the piece will have been unknown to most audience members if would have been helpful if he had introduced it.

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