SOMM has achieved a spectacular coup with the first-ever recording of Bax’s Concertino for Piano & Orchestra. The CD was recorded last April and this work also had its world premiere performance last July with The Orchestra of the Swan and Mark Bebbington, to critical acclaim.
Mark Bebbington – Piano,
Orchestra of the Swan,
David Curtis – Conductor
This is a large-scale piano concerto and Bax had dedicated it – as almost all other works for piano – to “Tanya” his name for his friend and lover, pianist Harriet Cohen.
In 1939, exactly 70 years ago, Arnold Bax began work on the Concertino but although he wrote out the first two movements in manuscript as a rough score on two staves, and the third movement was neatly written out as a two-piano score, he put the unfinished work aside without orchestrating it, apart from leaving instructions, here and there, as to the intended instrumentation. With the onset of the War and the political tension he had difficulty in concentrating on composition and put the work aside for good, composing nothing at all until the summer of 1942, when, as the new Master of the King’s Music, he was commissioned to write other new music.
The reconstruction of the Concertino was undertaken and completed in magnificent fashion by Bax authority, musicologist and composer Graham Parlett who has, in the past, successfully completed other works by Bax at the request of the Bax Trust. In Parlett’s own words “Despite its name, this is in effect a virtuoso, full-length Piano Concerto. The first two movements of the Concertino are often dark and brooding, using the same characteristic harmonies as in Bax’s Winter Legends or The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew. The third movement however, is in complete contrast and has exhuberance and a dance-like finale, in which Bax triumphantly succeeds in laying aside the political worries that had beset him during its composition.”
John Ireland, like Arnold Bax, was inspired to write his Concerto for Piano & Orchestra by his love for a woman, pianist Helen Perkin. She was his pupil of composition at the Royal College of Music and as their relationship blossomed quickly, they soon became inseparable. Ireland dedicated the Concerto to Helen and it was premiered by her in 1930 at the Promenade Concerts at Queen’s Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted Sir Henry Wood.
The Concerto contains exceptionally beautiful music, the first movement containing Ireland’s characteristic use of harmonies as well as elements of jazz, with the second theme played on muted trumpets. The second movement contains some of Ireland’s most yearningly heartfelt music, in a way, expressing his passionate admiration for Helen Perkin. The third movement brings Gershwin to mind and the closing rippling piano arpeggios bring back the syncopated version of the movement’s main theme with piano and full orchestra hurtling full tilt towards the close.
The CD concludes with Ireland’s Legend, which he wrote in 1934 after the great success of the Piano Concerto. It’s a powerful, brooding work. This was also premiered by Helen Perkin at Queen’s Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. It was played soon after its first performance by Harriet Cohen, with Ireland conducting.
The inspiration for this work was a vivid, dreamlike vision Ireland experienced while walking on the South Downs in his beloved West Sussex. Near the site of Neolithic flint mines and the remains of a medieval leper colony, he saw a number of children dressed in white garments, coming towards him. They played and danced together on the turf, but in complete silence. He realised that these were no ordinary children and as he glanced away for an instant and looked up again, the “children” had vanished. He dedicated the Concerto to his friend, Arthur Machen. When Ireland wrote to Machen describing his experience to him, Machen replied with a cryptic postcard saying ‘Oh, you’ve seen them too, have you?”
Orchestra of the Swan
Under the direction of Artistic Director David Curtis, Orchestra of the Swan has achieved national recognition for outstanding performances combined with innovative programming and a highly accessible style of presentation with pre-concert talks, introductions from the podium and post concert ‘conversation club’.
Orchestra of the Swan is a major champion of new music, commissioning more new work than almost any other chamber orchestra in the UK. Over the last five years OOTS has commissioned over 50 new works from composers, including John Woolrich, Tansy Davies, Joe Duddell, Joseph Phibbs, Errollyn Wallen, Paul Patterson, Alexander Goehr, John Joubert and many others.
The Orchestra’s home is in Stratford-upon-Avon. However, it has also had residencies elsewhere and performs at major concert venues and festivals, including Symhony Hall, Birmingham, Warwick Arts Centre, St. John’s, Smith Square, London, The Three Choirs Festival, Lichfield Festival and others. OOTS is now an Associate Ensemble for the Town Hall, Birmingham and is the driving force behind the new Spring Sounds Festival taking place in Stratford with Tasmin Little as Artistic Director.
A selection of CD reviews from recent Mark Bebbington recordings on SOMM:
“Under Bebbington’s fingers, revelling in the ebb and flow of Ireland’s portrait of the sea… the smaller pieces are deliciously done, too.”
BBC Radio 3 CD Review, June 2009
“As throughout this disc, Bebbington’s playing here displays a wonderful sense of spontaneous fantasy in flights of detail, whilst keeping an unobtrusive grip upon underlying structures. In the concluding third movement, Song of the Springtides, Bebbington paints an awesome picture of glittering waves…”
Birmingham Post, July 2009
“A magical recital of exquisite miniatures that confirms Mark Bebbington as one of the most gifted colourists of his generation. In the shamelessly Ravelian Characteristic Pieces Bebbington conjures up shimmering landscapes in sound via an alluring range of textures, touch-sensitivity and micro-pedalling that has one positively aching to hear him in Jeux d’eau or Miroirs.
Bridge’s heady mix of Scriabinesque chromatic sensuality with middle-period Debussy-like charm and whimsy is enormously challenging to master both technically and interpretatively, yet Bebbington makes it all appear effortless. This is a recital that seduces simply by the sound it makes, enhanced by state-of-the-art engineering from producer Siva Oke and engineer Paul Arden-Taylor. It is impossible to imagine this wonderful music ever being better played.”
Julian Haylock, International Piano, January/February 2009
“The second volume of Mark Bebbington’s survey of Frank Bridge’s piano music is easily up to the standard of the first and the programme is well-balanced, juxtaposing pieces written for children against complex nature-meditations, early against late, salon against concert hall.
There’s nothing here on the scale of the great Sonata included in the first volume, but the two most challenging pieces here are also highly contrasted: the big early Dramatic Fantasia (1906) which only came to light in the 1970’s, is a splendid display of late-Romantic extravagance, while the 1924 Retrospect is one of Bridge’s most anguished and searching utterances.
Bebbington’s playing is always sensitively nuanced, every phrase expressively shaped and pedalled, without losing sight of each piece’s overall thrust and import. He makes one aware, too, of how open Bridge’s ears were to his contemporaries; the Fairy Tale Suite clearly owes something to Ma mere l’oye, ‘Fireflies’ from the Characteristic Pieces relates to Debussy’s ‘Poissons d’or’ and ‘Mouvement’, and late miniatures like Graziella assimilate Scriabin’s late harmonic innovations. But Bridge was not an imitator: these examples define his range, and no one else in Britain was writing piano music that occupied the same territory. Buy with confidence.”
Calum MacDonald, BBC Music Magazine, February 2009
“Volume 1 in Mark Bebbington’s Frank Bridge series (SOMM,10/06) gave us (among other treasures) the finest version yet of the towering Piano Sonata (1921-24), and I’m delighted to be able to report that this successor shows no falling off in terms of interpretative insight or pianistic pedigree.
With his pleasingly refined touch and pellucid tone Bebbington proves more than a match for Ashley Wass on a rival Naxos release (6/06) which overlaps four items here, namely A Fairy Tale (Suite), In Autumn, Miniature Pastorals (Set 1) and the Three Pieces of 1912 (about thirty firve minutes of music in all). However, his generous selection encompasses an even wider chronological and stylistic range…
I need only reiterate that all this rewarding material is realised with total dedication and acute understanding by Bebbington. The recording, too, is most truthful”.
Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone Magazine, March 2009
“…his approach to the brooding and combative Piano Sonata is to give the harmony time enough to breathe, in order to go more intensely into its emotional life. The mystical aspects of the three Channel Island pieces collected as Decorations have seldom been more sensitively brought out. Enthusiasts for Ireland’s piano works have good reason to want all three pianists’ view of the repertoire. If, like me, you would be content with just one, I would choose Bebbington…”
BBC Music Magazine, October 2008
“For first-timers, however, Bebbington’s programme provides a pretty much ideal introduction, containing two of Ireland’s most popular and durable achievements, namely Decorations and London Pieces – both given with such winning aplomb, scrupulous care and heartwarming sense of new discovery that I found myself falling in love with them all over again (the vernally fresh Chelsea Reach positively beams with joy). Elsewhere, Bebbington displays wonderful control in the leaner-textured and economically argued Sonatina, just as he is acutely responsive to the fearful undertow of the Ballade. Somm’s sound is clear and true. Roll on Vol.2!”
Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone October 2008
“…in Bebbington’s hands, these are particularly compelling and systematically thought-through performances. Although he nods implicitly in the direction of the thoroughly grounded readings of previous recordings, Bebbington also dares to propose alternative priorities and insights…. I look forward with eagerness to Mark Bebbington’s second instalment.”
International Record Review, June 2008
“The music leans towards the Impressionistic school of writing, to which Mark Bebbington brings an intrinsic understanding…..(later) Bebbington explodes into life, giving the interpretation its wow factor.”
International Piano SELECTION, September/October 2008
“Toweringly powerful readings, with Bebbington racking up the tensions most persuasively”
David Hart, Birmingham Post, 4****
Bax Concertino – World premiere performance.
“…that fine British pianist and enthusiast for British music, Mark Bebbington, performed the solo part in Bax’s Piano Concertino. The piano part is full of strenuously triumphant melodies in the proper Lisztian manner and Bebbington played the grand moments with an appropriate swagger, whilst cherishing the rare moments of delicacy…”
Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph, July 8th 2009
“…Bebbington gave a poised account of the demanding virtuoso solo part…..the sweep of the music recalls, among others, Strauss and Sibelius.”
Rian Evans, Guardian, July 6th 2009
Bax’s big-boned piano work well worth the 70-year wait
“Despite its title, this is a big-boned, full-length, virtuoso piano concerto. Soloist Mark Bebbington had great command, not only of the muscular demands of the virtuoso writing, but also of the complex harmonic directions…”
Birmingham Post, 8th July 2009
“…there was excitement in the air as Mark Bebbington sat down to play the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra by Sir Arnold Bax, not least because of the presence of a film crew recording the event….Bebbington displayed tremendous virtuosity and deft fingerwork throughout…the Concertino is full of very fine music and the forthcoming CD of it should gain it a much wider audience.”
Musicweb, 7th July 2009
On This Recording
- Piano Concertino: I. Lento – Più mosso
- Piano Concertino: II. Lento
- Piano Concertino: III. Allegro
- Piano Concerto: I. In tempo moderato
- Piano Concerto: II. Lento espressivo
- Piano Concerto: III. Allegretto giocoso