Piano Quintet in C minor (1903, rev. 1905)
The Lark Ascending (1914, rev, 1919)
Fantasia (quasi variazioni) on the ‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune (1949)
Mark Bebbington (piano), Duncan Riddell (violin, Piano Quintet, Lark), Abigail Fenna (viola, Piano Quintet, Romance), Richard Harwood (cello, Piano Quintet), Benjamin Cunningham (double bass, Piano Quintet), City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Hilary Davon Wetton (Fantasia)
Resonus RES10311 [64’53’’]
Producer Adam Binks
Engineers Dave Rowell (Piano Quintet, Fantasia), Adam Binks (The Lark Ascending, Romance)
Recorded 8, 9 June, 25 July 2022 at St John’s Smith Square, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Mark Bebbington assumes centre-stage for this diverse collection of pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams, ranging across almost a half-century of his output as well as providing an effective showcase for his (unjustly criticized) piano writing heard here within three different contexts.
Does it all work?
One from a number of early chamber works as have only been revived and published in recent years, the Piano Quintet finds its composer seeking an accommodation between the Germanic and French models. The opening Allegro drives its fiery and wistful main themes through an intense development and curtailed reprise to an uneasy close, while the Andante contrasts the hymnic eloquence of its outer sections with the agitation at its centre. Most distinctive is the closing Fantasia, whose five variations on a plaintive theme shared between piano and strings evince no mean motivic ingenuity or expressive variety as they build to a fervent conclusion. Bebbington and the RPO players make a persuasive case for this uneven yet absorbing piece.
The two duo works make for a telling contrast in themselves. Although now ubiquitous in its orchestral incarnation, The Lark Ascending as originally conceived with piano is appealing and evocative in its own right – not least given with unforced pathos by Duncan Riddell and accompanied by Bebbington with sensitive understatement. Probably dating from the same time, the Romance seemingly went unheard in the composer’s lifetime (one of several pieces intended for but never played by Lionel Tertis) and received its first public hearing in 1962. Its build-up to an impassioned climax and return to its initial serenity is a familiar trajectory though one which is flawlessly carried through here, as least as rendered by Abigail Fenna.
Forward some 35 years to the Fantasia (quasi variazioni) on the ‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune – a piece whose infrequent performance is explained by the unlikely scoring for piano, chorus and strings but also the hybrid nature of its conception; the forthright nature of its four choral settings duly offset by the formal and expressive freedom of its alternating piano ‘cadenzas’ on route to a powerfully, even starkly drawn coda. Bebbington acquits himself with aplomb in the latter, while the City of London Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra respond with confidence to Hilary Davon Wetton, though perhaps this might have been the ideal occasion to revive the piece with accompaniment for string quartet as heard at its first private hearing.
Does it all work?
Almost. The follow-through of this selection is unusual to say the least, but its distinctiveness of content is undoubted – as, too, the quality of these performances. This is now the seventh version of the Piano Quintet and arguably the finest yet, the duos can stand comparison with any predecessor while that of the Fantasia has greater cohesion than the benchmark account by Adrian Boult with Peter Katin (EMI/Warner). Those familiar with Bebbington’s previous discs of VW’s piano music or early Fantasy (both Somm) will find comparable insights here.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. The recalcitrant acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square here yields the requisite warmth and no little clarity, while Nigel Simeone’s notes are informative if (purposely?) contentious on occasion. Anyone who is wanting to acquire some or all of these works need not hesitate.
For purchase information on this album, and to hear sound clips, visit the Resonus Classics website. For more on the artists, click on the names for information on Mark Bebbington, Hilary Davan Watton, City of London Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra