Mark Bebbington: British Piano Sonatas

Piano Sonata in F minor
Piano Sonata
Piano Sonata in D minor

Mark Bebbington (piano)

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 March, 2006
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Mark Bebbington’s valuable series of recitals focusing on the ‘British Piano Sonata’ continued here with a trilogy of pieces by composers whom either could or should have been better known.

A century on from his death, at only 30, William Hurlstone continues to be talked of as a figure of great potential. Certainly his F minor Sonata (1894) has technical finish and pianistic competence such that few of his British contemporaries could rival. And yet – the largely unrelieved Brahmsian density of chording and figuration, the expertly conceived but overt uniformity of texture and, above all, the unwillingness to give some not unattractive melodic writing its head: all point to a composer preoccupied with creating the right impression academically than with allowing his personal instincts to filter through. True, the ending of the central slow movement has an undeniable poetry, and those either side followed through the tonal implications of their respective sonata and rondo forms with no mean thoroughness – but as Bebbington ploughed his way most assuredly through this essentially impersonal music, one could only think that an academic career was where Hurlstone was headed.

With Benjamin Dale, the picture is a little more ambivalent – his D minor Sonata (1905) suggests no lack of ambition or the willingness to deploy it; rather a tendency to overreach himself too soon, and to a degree that the older composer might have looked back upon with not a little ruefulness.

The Sonata itself did not lack for champions (including Hess and Moiseiwitsch) – but, listening to this large-scale work today (48 minutes in Bebbington’s account), a feeling of enthusiastically embracing models without being able to transcend their influence is only too apparent. Schumann (via Brahms) and Liszt (via Anton Rubinstein) stand behind the thematic content of the ample but powerfully unified first movement. The following ‘Theme and Variations’ encompasses slow movement and scherzo in a way that would be ingenious had the formal follow-through of each variation been more dynamically motivated. As it is, the sequence tends to hang fire just when it needs to assume greater momentum, while neither here nor in the virtuoso rondo-finale that Follows without pause does the composer avoid a sense of salon music writ large. The quiet coda ends the work with a thoughtfulness that suggests altogether deeper musical impulses: an emotional depth, however, that Dale was seemingly either unable or unwilling to access.

With Frank Bridge, the issue is not one of curtailed or frustrated development: rather an evolution that changed out of recognition from his earlier self and also, unfortunately, from the context within which British music was expected to operate in the inter-war period.

His Piano Sonata (1924) is the turning-point in this respect: dedicated to the composer Ernest Farrar, who fell in World War One, its combination of sorrow and anger is expressed through a language less remarkable for evincing Berg and Bartók than for the conviction with which it absorbs them into an expression as wide-ranging stylistically as it is unified idiomatically. Something that Bebbington conveyed to the full in what can only be described as a magnificent performance: one that amalgamated the first movement’s ‘signal motif’ into the cumulative sonata structure with unerring conviction, then brought out the simmering plangency of the slow movement and the searing intensity of the finale without any compromising of the poise that Bridge invests in his piano writing. What ‘could have been’ is transmuted into ‘what is’ – indeed, ‘what had to be’ – in what must be one of the finest accounts this towering work has received.

A small but enthusiastic audience duly gave Bebbington the reception his playing merited. A pity a few more ‘piano fanciers’ could not have made the effort to attend: in terms of imaginative programming – persuasively and, at times, masterfully realised – they will hear nothing finer in London all this year.

  • Mark Bebbington plays Arnold, Lambert, Pott and Liszt at the Wigmore Hall on 23 June 2006

  • Wigmore Hall

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