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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
The Piano Music: Volume 1

Capriccio No.1 (1905) [2:36]
Three Sketches (1906) [8:19]
Capriccio No.2 (1905) [4:47]
The Hour Glass (1919/1920) [13:39]
Vignettes de Marseille (1925) [12:27]
Sonata for Piano (1921-1924) [34:57]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. Number 8 Arts Centre, Pershore, Worcestershire, date not given, pub. 2006
SOMMCD 056 [77:24]


When I reviewed the first volume of the Ashley Wass Naxos cycle of Bridge I was a good deal less impressed than most of my colleagues and went into some detail to explain why. I also added, as a postscript, a comparison of "The Hour Glass" with the recording by Peter Jacobs (Continuum) and the present one, which had just arrived for review. I thoughtBebbington somewhat better than Wass but found the Jacobs recordings basically unchallenged. I have at last had time to hear the rest of Bebbington’s disc.

First of all, there is one performance here which shows him to have real potential; that of the once ubiquitous "Rosemary", the second of the "Three Sketches". He sounds simple yet genuinely star-struck in the outer sections and is passionate and powerful in the central section. Jacobs here tries too hard. His outer sections are sticky and he spurts ahead too quickly in the middle. In the other two "Sketches", though, Jacobs wins with tauter rhythms and shapelier phrasing.

I only have volume 3 of the Jacobs cycle so the only other comparison I have is with the Sonata. I do get the idea, though, that he has lived with this music longer and made it a part of himself. Maybe Bebbington needed another five years – at least – before setting all this down. There are too many signs of the kind of "instant interpretation" that is the result of a sort of sight-reading plus that can easily reach a point of no return if the artist does not put his house in order. I do not mean by this that he is snatching at half-learnt notes - from this point of view everything has been confidently studied - but the process of assimilating music, of taking it up, performing it, setting it aside then taking it up again, all this several times over, requires years. I can only report that the aural evidence suggests that Jacobs had gone considerably further along this particular road before going into the studio. The opening of Capriccio no.2, from Bebbington, has its rhythms dotted in a way that would be more acceptable in Purcell or Charpentier. In general his response to a group of four semiquavers – the opening phrase of "Nicolette" from the "Vignettes" for example – is to dot the first one and make the second a demi-semi-quaver. This is no compensation for genuine shaping and colouring. Dance rhythms, as in the "Valse Capricieuse" (the third "Sketch") or "Carmelita" (the first "Vignette") lose their contours and therefore their lilt. Add to this a tendency to insert gratuitous commas between phrases – a habit to be noticed in both Capriccios – and rhythmic confusion is complete.

I complained that Wass did not clarify the different strands in contrapuntal textures by colouring them. Bebbington is better in this respect, as I already noted with regard to "The Hour Glass", but when the going gets tough, as in the Sonata, his textures, too, become congealed and congested. As a result of the combination of these factors, quite frankly there were whole pages in the Sonata where, even with the score in front of me, the music made no sense at all. In his hands this work – supposedly one of the masterpieces of 20th century British music – emerges as an amorphous, sprawling piece of mediocre ranting.

We can only close our eyes and try to imagine what Richter or Gilels might have made of this Sonata, but Peter Jacobs is always clear-sighted and shapely, achieving genuine power. The opening pages of his finale, for example, have a drive that eludes Bebbington. You will not doubt the music’s stature in his performance.

So I’m sorry, there’s no contest. Maybe Jacobs will be bettered one day but he’s acceptable while Bebbington is not.

The booklet notes are brief and to the point. They are also translated into French so presumably Somm hope to market this beyond the confines of Great Britain. A laudable idea in principle. I hope that any foreigner who tries this and ends up by sniggering about the Brits who insist on thinking they’ve got composers – living in Italy I sometimes come across this attitude – will take the time to ask themselves what we might think of Ravel, Scriabin, Prokofiev or the Berg Sonata if the only way we had of judging them was in performances like this.

Christopher Howell

see also review by John France

 


 



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