Mark Bebbington at St John’s Smith Square: Island Stories

Nocturne No.6 in D-flat, Op.63
Prélude, choral et fugue
Gnossienne No.4; Embryons desséchés
Sarnia – An Island Sequence
Nocturnes – in B-flat minor, Op.9/1 & in F, Op.15/1; Ballade in G-minor, Op.23

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 4 April, 2019
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Mark BebbingtonPhotograph:, the second of Mark Bebbington’s three season-long Pianograms recitals was, like the first, subtly chosen – music “inspired by remote seascapes”. Naturally, and welcome in the circumstances, the recital did not wholly comprise ‘sea’ music, but music which has, however tenuously, connections with islands – places which inspired the music, sound-pictures of islands, or which were composed thereon.

This was not therefore an ‘illustrative’ programme; more an expression through various differing masterpieces of inner, subtly related, feelings, reflected in each work. Nocturnes by Fauré and Chopin gently framed the programme, and it was clear, from the opening bars of Fauré’s haunting Opus 63, that the sensitivity and imagination of Bebbington’s playing, underpinned by a wondrous range of tone-colour, found this gifted artist at his finest.

This was a most beautiful opening; César Franck’s masterly Prélude, Choral et Fugue, notwithstanding its dimensions and frequent brilliance, can only be made fully coherent through a pianist who chooses the correct tempo for the final section – more a contrapuntal fantasia than a strict fugue – and which, working backwards, relates that tempo to the preludial music and the heart of the work, the great chorale. Without a doubt, Bebbington’s realisation of this unique score was superlative. His individual imagination in shaping the music into a series of fully coherent structures was so well expressed, and his control of dynamics again revealed a master interpreter. Such is this artist’s empathy with the French school that he found rare depths in the two Satie pieces, alongside the clean and meticulous expression which is all that lesser performers reveal in them.

John Ireland’s tripartite Sarnia sequence is, thanks to the championship of such as Bebbington, by no means the rare visitor to recitals it once was, and as time goes by the number of international pianists of the younger generation who have added Ireland’s work to their repertoire is proof of the sterling artistry of this composer – and of the example of this pianist, to whom this music forms part of his cardio-vascular system, infusing even the more outward-going pages in the work with a subtle warmth alongside a discerning sense of style.

Such qualities led naturally to the three Chopin pieces, played virtually attacca, suffused with poetry, delicacy of insight, tenderness and – in passages of the Ballade – full rhythmic cogency and virtuosity. The welcome encore was not unexpected: Ireland’s The Island Spell, given with rare poetry.

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