Piano Sonata, Op.25
Lyric Fantasy on themes from the opera Jane Eyre
The Moon over Westminster Cathedral [UK premiere]
Piano Sonata, Op.47
Piano Sonata [London premiere]
Towers of the God-King [London premiere]
Four Piano Solos
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 29 October, 2003
Venue: St. Johns, Smith Square, London
While the British Symphony has been written about at length (though, a few notable exceptions aside, not much played!), the British Piano Sonata has received scant attention as an integral body of music. So all credit to Mark Bebbington – whose notable CD of music by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco has just been released on Somm (CD032) – for this first in what will be a five-part retrospective of the genre over the coming months. The stylistic range looks to be wide – not least when the programme consists largely of music by living composers.
Opening with Bernard Stevens’s sonata was certainly going in at the deep end – as this 15-minute, three-in-one piece has a contrapuntal density only temporarily ’relieved’ by the more linear writing of its central Adagio. Bebbington seemed in full command of the taut structure, and – as elsewhere in the recital – his dexterity in the most elaborate passagework was in itself a pleasure, but there remains an impersonal quality to the music that will likely prove hard to overcome. Not so Lyric Fantasy by the prolific John Joubert. Effectively a paraphrase on the love music from his recently completed opera Jane Eyre, this is an evocative yet resourceful study which warrants repeated hearings. Although comparably atmospheric, Judith Bingham’s Chopin seemed prolix by comparison: interesting that her recent nocturne, The Moon over Westminster Cathedral, should conjure up Chopinesque associations much more appositely.
Either side of the interval came the other two designated ’sonatas’ in the recital. David Matthews’s sonata encompasses a variety of moods and textures over its 15 variants on the initial rhythmic gesture, an enterprising and satisfying reappraisal of a hallowed genre. Shorter in terms of overall length, Tom Ingoldsby’s recent sonata feels more expansive as it grows gradually and cumulatively from its opening harmonic cell. As with his piano concerto Wave Etchings and violin sonata After the Eulogy, both reviewed on this site, there’s a real sense of ’classical’ tonal relations being thoughtfully re-imagined for the present.
Towers of the God King is Paul Max Edlin’s encapsulation of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. Drawing on a diverse range of textures and employing all aspects of the instrument, the piece does not entirely avoid diffuseness, but a sense of transcendence in the serene closing pages is undeniable. A comparable inwardness, very differently achieved, is evident in Vespers in Venice – one of Four Piano Solos by Cecilia McDowall that concluded the evening. Both Shades of Silence and Pavane make pointed yet poetic play with music from other eras, though the amalgamation of lullaby and strathspey in Tapsalteerie proved less scintillating than expected.
Taken overall, an absorbing and wide-ranging evening – drawn together by the technical command and interpretative insight that Bebbington invested in every piece. The second instalment, on 10 March 2004, of his timely series should be well worth hearing, not least as it will include a rare performance of the monumental piano sonata by Benjamin Dale.