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Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Piano Sonata in B minor (1942) [11:59]
Two Piano Pieces (1943): (i) Prelude [3:27]; (ii) Romance [2:30]
Variations on a Ukrainian Folk Song Op.9 (1944) [14:45]
Constant LAMBERT (1905-1951)

Piano Sonata (1929) [23:20]
Elegy (1938) [4:52]
Suite in Three movements (1925) [11:40]
Elegiac Blues (1927) [2:56]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, August 2005
SOMM CD 062 [76:54]
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Constant Lambert’s Sonata is a work that has justifiably garnered an increasing number of recordings of late. Fortunately each exponent brings something definably distinctive to it, finding in it, perhaps, shifting elements of the syncopated and the romantic. Mark Bebbington, whose recitals teem with unusual British work, and who advances the national cause with great avidity finds an unusually large element of wistfulness in the sonata. John McCabe on Continuum CCD1040 found, back in 1991, a more incisive degree of ebullience and jagged rhythm. In a rather swimmier acoustic than Bebbington’s Symphony Hall, McCabe favoured bigger textures and dynamics. On Hyperion, Ian Brown was also fleeter than Bebbington and turned corners rather more sharply. But Bebbington’s conception, whilst not as athletic as theirs (though doubtless he "could if he wanted to"), is rather different and entirely serious. Less syncopated and rather less jazzy he aligns it not to the contemporary jazz inflected works of, say, Schulhoff and Ježek but to rather more explicitly French models.

He uses rather less pedal than his competitors as well, and whilst he holds back in the second movement – McCabe piles on the romance here - it’s the better to bring out some intriguing Gershwinesque hues and some real introspection. The element of reserve pays eloquent dividends in the finale where Lambert as good as quotes his own baritone solo from Summer’s Last Will and Testament. Bebbington’s considered view is slower than both Brown and McCabe but its sympathetic dexterity and its element of unease will interest all Lambert admirers.

The 1925 Suite is also Francophile - almost defiantly so – in the Satie hypnosis of the opening Andante. It also cleaves close to Stravinskian lights later on, with lyricism and jazz-drenched incision alternating with vibrancy and engagement. It’s good that Bebbington includes the brief tribute to Florence Mills – in its alert reminiscences it’s as much celebratory as funereal; more so in fact. The 1938 Elegy is more conventionally so.

I’m not sure that the "subtle connections" that Robert Matthew-Walker advances in his booklet notes between the life and works of Lambert and Arnold really amount to such – I’ve never seen Arnold as a "polemicist" more as a total individualist – but it’s good to have Arnold’s B minor sonata here. Arnold veers from clement reflection to the Sabre Dance in a trice, all the while conforming to strict sonata principles. There’s more than a hint of French impressionism as well in the opening movement and, not unlike the Lambert, hints of Gershwin and tristesse in the Andante though properly played con moto as marked. The finale teems with pranks; Prokofiev jostling momentarily with Bach and Bach with a waltz.

The lyricism of the Andante Lamentoso, the first of the 1943 Two Pieces, belies its title rather; is it just me or do I hear prefiguring of future symphonic slow movements there? The second, a Romance, is gorgeous, truly beautiful. The 1944 Variations on a Ukrainian Folk Song is Arnold’s most extensive solo piano work and highly infectious it is too. Prokofiev is a presence, maybe also Shostakovich as well in the second variation. But otherwise the pattern is Arnold’s own – colour, vivacity, pawkiness, warmth, desolation (variation nine), strange stillness (variation ten) and nostalgia, loss.

In the plethora of new and re-releases, Arnoldian recapitulations and repackagings of symphonic and orchestral works, do not overlook this Somm entrant. Bebbington is an expert guide to Arnold’s piano works and casts a very personal eye on Lambert as well. He’s the first pianist to record solo at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, a fact that justifies the confidence placed in him by Somm.

Jonathan Woolf


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