Mark Bebbington Recital

The Sea
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.8
Elgar, arr. Karg-Elert
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 September, 2004
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Last October Mark Bebbington began an ambitious survey of twentieth-century British piano music. As with that first instalment, the present recital brought an inquiring approach to a diverse repertoire: music that thrives on such committed yet undemonstrative advocacy as here.

Bebbington’s most recent CD features music by Ivor Gurney and Howard Ferguson: appropriate then that their music be featured this evening. Sehnsucht (1908) finds Gurney venturing into the harmonic world of early Scriabin with attractive results, and if the sturdy platitudes of The Sea (1909) are less fetching, the teenage composer was clearly more than just a gifted amateur.

Remembered now as much for formally ‘retiring’ from composition (around 1960) as for what he actually composed, Ferguson was a significant mid-century presence in British music and his Piano Sonata – premiered at one of Myra Hess’s National Gallery recitals in 1940 – ranks among his most powerful utterances. Bebbington captured much of the febrile intensity (think of the more Bartókian of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux) of the outer movements, with their deft eliding of sonata form either side of the central Adagio – its cumulative pathos limpidly and unaffectedly rendered.

Had Ferguson continued composing, he would likely have found common stylistic cause with John McCabe, whose not inconsiderable output for piano was represented by Tenebrae (1992-3). In part an ‘in memoriam’ for departed colleagues, this substantial piece might be described as a sequence of paraphrases on the theme heard largely in the bass near the outset – rising to a propulsive series of climaxes before leavening into a far from placid leave-taking. McCabe has spoken of his fascination with the world of Liszt’s La lugubre Gondola diptych, though the rhetorical manner of Funérailles was detectable in the later stages; certainly in as sympathetic and finely attuned a performance as this.

Although he left the substantial Concert Allegro and a number of miniatures from all stages of his career (such as the delightful In Smyrna), Elgar’s piano music hardly stands alongside his orchestral and choral work. Bebbington gave us none other than a transcription of the First Symphony, made in 1909 by Siegfrid Karg-Elert at the behest of the publisher Novello. An arrangement for piano of a quintessentially orchestral conception by a composer best known for his organ output might sound unpromising, but Karg-Elert’s achievement in bringing the contrapuntal intricacy and harmonic subtlety of the piece within the scope of two hands is undoubted – though if his transcription were commissioned primarily for the domestic market, there must have been a fair few ‘home-pianists’ left reeling in the wake of its pianistic demands.

Which manifestly cannot be said of Bebbington, whose leisurely but never sluggish traversal of the long opening movement left no doubt that his sights were set firmly on the bigger picture. The ‘motto’ theme was stated simply but surely, while the harmonic inflections which motivate what can otherwise seem a prolix structure were attentively brought out. The contrasting themes that make up the scherzo were less markedly characterised than usual, and Bebbington’s deft handling of the transition into the slow movement crystallised thematic connections to a degree rarely possible in an orchestral context. The Adagio itself was beautifully poised (would that more conductors would ‘play’ the music thus rather than smother it with a welter of agogics), while the finale built to a vigorous, affirmative apotheosis that never threatened to overreach itself.

This ‘creative transcription’ was thus vindicated as it can rarely have been, and if Bebbington were similarly to do justice to Karg-Elert’s transcriptions of the Second Symphony and Falstaff (the latter apparently never performed), the results would be well worth hearing. Inclusion of the Elgar meant that there was no room (!) for the equally substantial Piano Sonata by Benjamin Dale, originally scheduled for this occasion: that will no doubt appear in a future recital in this series – one which amply confirms Bebbington as among the most perceptive British pianists of his generation.

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