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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No.1 (arr. for piano by Sigfrid Karg-Elert)
Alan BUSH (1900-1995)
Piano Sonata in B minor op.2
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 21-22 August 2006. DDD
SOMM SOMMCD069 [66:47]

I have always thought it brave of pianists to record arrangements of acknowledged orchestral masterpieces, particularly when there are many versions of the original in circulation. Before recordings were available transcriptions brought relatively unknown works into the confines of the home environment. Liszt’s arrangements of the Symphonie Fantastique and Beethoven Symphonies set the standard for such endeavours, demonstrating his genius at imagining orchestral sonorities in terms of the keyboard. Such fiendish works were not really for the amateur market, requiring the full technical armoury of a virtuoso to bring them to life, but they stand as genuine creations in their own right.
The German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert is probably best remembered today for his colourful organ music, much of which is still in the repertoire. He was undoubtedly a highly gifted musician and his arrangement of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 is, to my ears, remarkably true to the spirit of the original. For someone who has revered this work for many years, one can perhaps take for granted the composer’s unique orchestral sound-world. Repeated listening to this outstanding recording has proved a fascinating and rewarding experience, providing a complementary view of a work crucial in the development of English symphonic music.
Mark Bebbington clearly has a deep appreciation of Elgar’s original, and his playing has an ebb and flow which seems entirely idiomatic. His tempo for the main body of the first movement may be broad - more Barbirolli than Solti as he points out in his informative analysis - but this allows the pianist to cope with some treacherous double-note figuration perhaps more driven by fidelity to the score than in making life easy for the player. However, throughout this movement Bebbington never gives the impression of sacrificing forward impetus for safety, and any momentary desire for a more sustained melodic line is soon dispelled by subtle tonal shading and deft pedalling.
The transition between the second and third movements is particularly sensitively handled, and as Bebbington points out, the immediacy of piano version enables the player to give this magical passage a natural melodic and rhythmic definition. In the glorious slow movement Karg-Elert wisely avoids the temptation of replacing the lyrical intensity of the original with overly complex pianistic solutions. Bebbington plays with great tenderness and feeling, achieving a highly convincing balance between emotional involvement and structural control.
In the finale Bebbington again manages to create an authentic sweep and momentum, and the movement is crowned by a thrilling climax. A musical example in the booklet shows just what contrapuntal intricacies the pianist has to contend with, and it is a tribute to this performance that one is never made aware of the technical hurdles which are being overcome. Bebbington writes, ‘For all listeners…the transcription will hopefully give pleasure as well as furnish interest and stimulation in equal measure.’ For me he has certainly more than achieved his aim and I am grateful for his efforts.
If the Elgar was not reason enough to justify purchasing this CD there is a substantial addition in the form of Alan Bush’s Piano Sonata in B minor. This work was entirely new to me and on the strength of this recording I intend to further explore his music as a matter of urgency. It is a youthful work, written when the composer was barely in his twenties, and Bebbington gave the first known public performance of it in 80 years in 2006. It is cast in one movement, and the three-part structure is relatively easily grasped. After the arresting opening theme there is a particularly memorable second subject of telling lyricism.
In conclusion, this is a most impressive release, coupling first class pianism, adventurous programming, and excellent technical support.
Robert Costin

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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