On record: Mark Bebbington, RPO / Jan Latham-Koenig – Grieg & Delius: Piano Concertos (Somm)

Mark Bebbington (piano), Irene Loh (piano duet), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig

Delius
Piano Concerto in C minor (final version) (1907)
3 Preludes (1921)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (arr. by Peter Warlock for two pianos, 1913)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op.16 (1869)
Sketches for Piano Concerto no.2 in B minor (1881) (edited / orchestrated Robert Matthew-Walker

Avie SOMMCD269 [74’59”]

Recorded 1-2 August 2017 (Grieg) and 22 October (Delius)

Producers Siva Oke (Grieg), Paul Arden-Taylor (Delius)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Mark Bebbington continues his recording schedule for Somm with this enterprising coupling of concertos by Grieg and Delius, heard alongside shorter pieces and an unexpected novelty.

What’s the music like?

The novelty is the extant sketches for a ‘second piano concerto’ on which Grieg worked in the early 1880s, and which amount to some 150 bars. Robert Matthew-Walker has put these into performable shape, but it cannot be pretended the outcome is of more than passing interest. Bebbington also renders the sketches as a solo item and this might prove viable in terms of a recital addition or encore.

There are good things in his account of the A minor Concerto, the limpid interplay between soloist and orchestra in the central Adagio or raptness of response to the finale’s central episode with its ineffable flute melody, but the first movement is for the most part earthbound and the work’s apotheosis not free from bathos. Bebbington plays with scrupulous regard for dynamic nuance and timbral subtlety though, as in his recent account of the Gershwin concerto (SOMM260), the performance feels conscientious rather than inspired.

Fortunately. the remainder of this disc is far more persuasive. Heard here in its final version, Delius‘s Piano Concerto is a three-movements-in-one design whose occasional awkwardness of transition and tendency to rhetorical overkill is more than outweighed by the resourceful evolution of its ideas and the allure of its melodic contours. Bebbington duly responds with playing of sensitivity and panache, reinforcing the not inconsiderable claims of this work to a place in the standard repertoire.

Also featured here are the Three Preludes, their rhythmic vitality and improvisatory freedom more than usually in evidence, and a duet transcription by the teenage Peter Warlock (aka Philip Helseltine) of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring that is alone worth the price of the disc: its ruminative vistas deftly and unerringly uncovered.

Does it all work?

For the most part. Bebbington is up against several decades of stiff competition in the Grieg, and his reading does not offer any great revelations. The Delius, however, is arguably a front runner for this final version, while the fill-ups are of similarly high quality.

Is it recommended?

With reservations. The playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Jan Latham-Koenig is never less than responsive, with Irene Loh an able partner in the Delius. Sound is spacious if a little too resonant in tutti passages, and Matthew-Walker’s notes are a model of informed insight.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the release on the Somm Recordings website

On record: Heracleitus (EM Records)

heracleitus

Butterworth: Songs (1910/11)*/** – When the Lad for Longing Sighs; Bredon Hill; On the Idle Hill of Summer; With Rue My Heart is Laden. Songa (1911/12)*/** – Fill a Glass with Golden Wine; On the Way to Kew

Gurney: Ludlow and Teme (1919)*/**/***. Adagio (1924)***. Songs*/** – The Cloths of Heaven (1918); Severn Meadows (1917); By a Bierside (1916).

Warlock: Songs */*** – Heracleitus (1917); Sweet Content (1919)

*Charles Daniels (tenor); **Michael Dussek (piano); ***Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield, violins; Michael Schofield, viola; Lucy Wilding, cello]

Summary

The centenary of the Battle of the Somme has seen various commemorations in music, with this latest release from EM Records among the most significant. It centres on two composers – one of whom died during the Somme offensive, while the other never recovered from being gassed at Passchendaele the next year. The disc also opens-out appreciation of their output in featuring autonomous pieces for string quartet and as accompaniment to several of the songs.

What’s the music like?

All these forces are brought together in Ludlow and Teme, Ivor Gurney’s song-cycle on verse from A.E. Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad. A notable though unstable creative force in those years after the cessation of war, it was long considered among Gurney’s largest and most inclusive works; its expressive range more than compensating for any lack of sustained intensity across its six songs. One of these, ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’, was set by George Butterworth prior to the War – his version confirming both a greater emotional lightness and textural subtlety which are no less apposite. Also included are two Butterworth settings of W. E. Henley, suffused by that dry wit and wistful charm emblematic of the Edwardian era. The disc closes with more Gurney – moving backwards in time so the pathos of W.B. Yeats’s The Cloths of Heavens, and poignancy of the composer’s Severn Meadows, is rounded-off by the eloquence of John Masefield’s By a Bierside in what ranks among Gurney’s greatest settings.

Two songs by Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine, who seems to have avoided conscription via a mixture of guile and happenstance) are among several conceived with accompaniment for string quartet, and have been idiomatically arranged as such by John Mitchell. Of these, Heracleitus is a setting of W.J. Cory (after Callimachus) as evinces the influence of Bernard van Dieren in its sombre tread and harmonic richness, while that of Thomas Dekker’s Sweet Content exudes the chic vacuity which is often to be encountered in Warlock’s lesser songs.

The other two works are also first recordings. Odd that Butterworth’s Suite for String Quartet should have had to wait 15 years since publication, as it is the composer’s largest extant piece and offers valuable insight into his wresting with abstract forms. The opening Andante is well argued, though the Scherzando and Allegro might profitably have been integrated, while the fourth movement is insufficiently contrasted with a final Moderato whose faltering progress is indication of a project lacking the ultimate focus. Not so the Adagio from a String Quartet in D minor, seemingly the only surviving chamber work from Gurney’s final manic outburst of creativity and whose heightened emotion bodes well for a hearing of the complete work.

Does it all work?

Yes, when seen as an overall programme that skilfully interweaves its vocal and instrumental items to give a thoughtful and revealing portrait of the two main composers featured herein.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the contribution of Charles Daniels (best known for his interpretation and editions of Baroque music) is so attuned to the songs in question. Michael Dussek is as ever an attentive accompanist, and the Bridge Quartet continues its persuasive exploration of English music. Both recording and annotations are up to the customary high standard of EM Records.

Richard Whitehouse

For more information on their extensive catalogue of English music, visit the EM Records website