The Wasps – Overture
Piano Concerto in E flat
Symphony No.5 in D
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Orchestra of the Swan
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 23 May, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
The Orchestra of the Swan’s inaugural (and hopefully not final!) season at Cadogan Hall came to an end with an all-British concert which was of especial interest in including both of John Ireland’s works for piano and orchestra: music that has latterly begun to come in from the cold as regards live performance.
In the case of the Piano Concerto (1930), a partial return to a popularity almost without equal in British music during the inter-war and immediate post-war eras. To a later generation more familiar with the concertos of Prokofiev, Ravel and Bartók, the stylistic limitations of Ireland’s work are the more obvious, yet the deftness and fluency that the composer invests into the genre are hardly less evident. No stranger to this piece, Mark Bebbington brought a sweep and purposefulness to the opening movement, though he and David Curtis might have made more of those jazz inflections which emerged rather too literally here. The slow movement was finely done, soloist and orchestra keeping their distance in a series of increasingly intense exchanges before combining in its expressive climax, while the Gershwin-like syncopated writing of the finale lacked little in zest – even if the surging return of the main theme at the close seemed too inhibited to be fully convincing.
After the interval came a welcome revival of Legend (1933). Inspired by writings of Arthur Machen as well as an apparition on the Sussex Downs, this one-movement piece of alternately ominous and hieratic atmosphere is without parallel in Ireland’s output and so makes for a less approachable though more arresting experience. Bebbington had the measure of the opening section’s sombre rhetoric and the menacing central interlude with its nagging motivic repetition, while he and Curtis were at one in bringing out the ambivalence of the restive close. A superb account of music that well deserves to enter the repertoire.
Either side of the Ireland came familiar pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Overture to Aristophanes’s play The Wasps (1909) was a little shaky in ensemble during its brusque outer sections, but the ‘big tune’ at the centre lacked nothing in soulfulness and its return towards the close clinched the overall formal design with aplomb.
The account of the Fifth Symphony (1943) proved to be a curate’s egg of interpretative insight and flawed execution. Curtis adopted a steady though never sluggish tempo for the ‘Preludio’ which, however, moved all too prosaically into its radiant second theme then, after accruing no mean momentum into the development, lacked heightened intensity at the movement’s apotheosis. Nor was the ‘Scherzo’ ideal in its combination of its overly foursquare phrasing and playing that, without being at all scrappy, was never quite precise enough. Best was the ‘Romanza’ – its alternation of rapt chorale, ruminative hymnal and airborne arabesque endowed with a slow-burning yet cumulative intensity which made the climax the defining catharsis it needs to be, with solo entries such as presented the Swan’s principal string and woodwind players in a notably favourable light. Curtis then began the ‘Passacaglia’ finale at a vigorous pace that left room for more expressive asides, besides being well sustained through to the dramatic re-emergence of the work’s opening theme. Easy to gloss over, the coda proceeded limpidly to its close – affecting rather than transcendent, perhaps, but lacking little in that sense of emotional fulfilment which no doubt entranced listeners at the work’s premiere almost seventy years ago.