Mark Bebbington at St John’s Smith Square

London Pieces
Piano Sonata in B minor, Op.58
Préludes [selections from Books I & II]
Suite Napoli
Improvisation No.15 (Hommage à Edith Piaf)

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 December, 2010
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Mark Bebbington. Photograph: Rama KnightMark Bebbington’s London recitals are always to be anticipated and this one was no exception, bringing together works by four diverse composers in a fine demonstration of the breadth of this pianist’s sympathies. No disrespect to Ireland’s piano music – which holds a wealth of incidental attractions – but his London Pieces (1917/20) were rather outclassed by the remainder of the programme. That said, Bebbington brought keen nostalgia to ‘Chelsea Reach’ (not least its pensive refrain) and varied its rhythmic emphasis such that the texture seemed rather less an ongoing sequence of chords than usual, before vividly delineating the nonchalant pathos of ‘Ragmuffin’ and the whimsical aura – not a little informed by a postprandial gait – of ‘Soho Forenoons’. Bebbington has now recorded the whole of this composer’s piano output for Somm, an intégrale unlikely to be surpassed for its acuity and insight.

From here to Chopin made a somewhat disconcerting transition, not least in that the B minor Sonata (1844) is his most Classical in conception and layout. A work, too, that has garnered a fair number of performances in this bicentenary year, but Bebbington’s could hold its own in whatever company. The first movement took time to hit its stride – the quizzical opening gesture sounded just a little didactic while the mellifluous second theme was marginally overwrought – but the intensive striving of a development that effectively bypasses the reprise, on its way to a defiant coda, was powerfully controlled. The darting outer sections of the scherzo contrasted well with the languor of its trio, then the slow movement was finely sustained through to its eloquent climax and on to a ruminative close. Nor did the finale disappoint in its purposeful motion and affirmative yet not unduly rhetorical ending.

The highpoint of the evening, however, came after the interval. Although it has become increasingly the norm to play either book of Debussy’s Préludes (1910/13) as an entity, there is no reason why a selection from both should not be equally effective in a recital. So it proved here. The gradually emerging then receding apparition that is ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ was magisterially rendered; after which the elliptical transitions and astringent harmony of ‘La sérénade interrompue’ were the more immediate, while the texture-driven momentum of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ was ominous in the extreme. Nor did Bebbington underplay the element of burlesque in ‘Général Lavine – eccentric’, before giving an unbridled display of virtuosity in ‘Feux d’artifice’ – its coruscating brilliance thrown into relief by the distant intimation of the Marseillaise at its close. This was great Debussy-playing by any standards.

The impression made on the audience was evident by the fact that an absorbed silence followed on from the Debussy and into the Poulenc. As uneven as it is wide-ranging, the latter’s piano music is ripe for rediscovery – with Suite Napoli (1925) among his best for the medium with its unlikely yet compelling mixture of Satie, Ravel and (more obliquely!) Albéniz. Bebbington captured well the restive atmosphere of ‘Barcarolle’, then brought a dreamily evocative touch to the languorous ‘Nocturne’ and an unflagging impetus to ‘Caprice Italien’ that concludes this triptych. Hopefully he will find time in his recording schedule to set down some of the French music with which he obviously feels such affinity. In the meantime, a wide-ranging and increasingly impressive recital was rounded off by Hommage à Edith Piaf (1959) which, in its alternately sultry and sombre expression, made for an ideal (advertised) encore.

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