La lugubre gondola [First version]
Piano Sonata in B minor
Reminiscences de Lucia Lammermoor
Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este
Après une lecture du Dante – Fantasia quasi Sonata
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 22 October, 2011
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Mark Bebbington has undertaken prodigious work in the cause of British piano music – composers such as Bax, Ireland, Lambert, Arnold, Gurney, Ferguson, Bridge, Rawsthorne, Finzi and Mathias, all of whose styles would have been very different without the all-pervasive influence of Liszt. Bebbington’s programme devoted to him, another in the long line of bicentennial celebrations of Liszt’s birth, couldn’t help but acknowledge this, at the same time as reminding us of Bebbington’s insights into the golden age of pianism.
Bebbington is equal to the grandest of Liszt’s music and has a finely tuned sense of direction and structure in everything he does, which became clear in the tensile strength of his performance of the B minor Sonata. There were some terrific moments – the lead into the slow section was especially memorable – and his playing of the dramatically prophetic opening presaged an epic reading. His judgement of pulse and pace was for the most part infallible, and the approaches to the various climaxes were delivered with impressive inevitability. Some of his pedalling was overdone, though, exacerbating the big but unfocused piano sound with an over-bright, clangorous top register. Occasionally, in this killer of a work, there were moments of insecurity and rushing at fences, but the work’s overall sweep and tension remained intact. The close was impressive, like a beast being returned to its cage.
The Sonata was preceded by a majestic performance of La lugubre gondola, Bebbington veiling the music’s fractured procession with dark shades of evasive chromaticism. Just as fine, although more light-hearted, was the brilliant, showy rhetoric of Reminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor and Valse Impromptu, full of glittering detail and commanding virtuosity. However, it was in Les jeux d’eau that he hit his stride – the rippling evenness of tone growing into a climax of inimitable Lisztian ecstasy and giving us a taste of what makes his music so overwhelming. Bebbington didn’t recapture this form in the Dante piece; with this and the Sonata it really is like running two marathons on the same day. It sounded a bit cautious, with musical reflexes not so incisive. The result was uninvolving and hectoring, and you became too aware of the torrents of notes. They’re in the score, of course, but you need to hear that they’re part of Liszt’s grand plan, especially in a heavyweight piece such as this.