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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1869) [32:53]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B minor (c. 1881) – Sketches [3:48] (sketches arranged and orchestrated by Robert Matthew-Walker)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B minor (c. 1881) – Sketches [3:58] (arranged for solo piano by Robert-Matthew Walker)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Piano Concerto in C minor (1907) [24:21]
Three Preludes for solo piano (1921) [4:46]
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1913, transcr. piano duet by Peter Warlock) [5:11]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Irene Loh (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jan Latham-Koenig
rec. 2017, St. John’s, Smith Square, London (Grieg), Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth (Delius)

On Somm, pianist Mark Bebbington brings together music, notably piano concertos, of Edvard Grieg and Frederick Delius, composers who had a long and firm friendship. It is an idea which I am surprised record labels have not exploited more in the past.

The year 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of Delius’s birth, prompting a number of new releases of his music. Since then Delius releases have been rather thin on the ground, so it is encouraging to see this new album of music for piano, mainly with orchestra, including works of his older friend Grieg. The composers first met in Norway in 1887 during a summer holiday from Leipzig Conservatory where Delius was studying.

Whilst on holiday in the summer of 1868 Grieg, a young married man with a baby daughter, newly appointed conductor of Christiania Philharmonic Association, wrote his piano concerto. It is a masterpiece of enduring popularity with audiences. The instantly cheerful and inspiring disposition of the piece seems to reflect Grieg’s happy time domestically, and it marks a significant creative point in the composer’s life. It was soloist and dedicatee Edmund Neupert who successfully premiered the A minor score in 1869 at Copenhagen under Holger Simon Paulli.

Mark Bebbington is impressive in the Grieg concerto. He conveys a boldly vital and rather celebratory feel to the opening movement, and that feel is also conspicuous in the closing section. The Adagio is crisply articulated and delightfully phrased, with tender playing from the soloist. The spine-tingling passion which the finest exponents can attain is not quite communicated here. Bebbington’s playing, with buoyancy as well as grandeur in the sparkling Finale, conveys captivating sincerity in the slow sections. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Latham-Koenig provides steadfast accompaniment with abundant sensitivity when needed. The exultant conclusion does not feel quite as remarkable as I remember pianist Jan Lisiecki achieving in concert with the touring Philadelphia Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin; that riveting performance was rapturously received by the Dresden Semperoper audience in 2015.

Grieg’s score is so popular that the field for competing recordings is crowded. For their sense of grandeur and total engagement, my two preferred recordings are the 1963 Berlin account by Géza Anda and Berliner Philharmoniker under Rafael Kubelik (on Deutsche Grammophon), and the 2002 Berlin performance by Leif Ove Andsnes with Berliner Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons (on EMI Classics).
Music publisher Max Abraham asked Grieg for a second piano concerto. Grieg, who was beset by personal difficulties, commenced work on the concerto, then left the score unfinished, only as sketches. Composer Robert Matthew-Walker has arranged and orchestrated the sketches into a performable score. It uses everything that Grieg wrote—lasting here just under four minutes—played by Bebbington with the RPO led by Latham-Koenig. This interesting arrangement reveals relatively little but is a worthwhile exercise nevertheless. In addition, Bebbington plays Matthew-Walker’s arrangement of the sketches for solo piano, which in truth I enjoyed slightly more.

Although Grieg showed Delius his piano concerto soon after they first met, it was a decade before Delius completed in 1897 a single-movement Fantasy in C minor for piano and orchestra which he played through with Busoni on two pianos. Delius recast the Fantasy into a three-movement piano concerto, premiered in 1904 at Elberfeld by soloist Julius Buths and conductor Hans Haym. Dissatisfied, Delius revised the piano concerto in 1906 as a single-movement score in three parts after consulting with pianist Theodor Szántó. It was Szántó who introduced the score, with Henry Wood conducting, at a Prom Concert in London in 1907. The conductor Thomas Beecham, a Delius champion, took up the piano concerto. His pianist wife Betty Humby Beecham played and recorded it with the RPO in 1946.

The version Bebbington is playing here is described as the final version from 1907, edited by Beecham and published in 1951. Clearly Bebbington is very much at home with Delius’s fervent sound world. Marked Moderato, the opening section feels dignified but there is an undertow of foreboding. In the Largo section a passage of aching tenderness is followed by writing of significant passion then returning to calm refection, a touch moody, even dreamy; it all amounts to a love letter in music. The final section Maestoso is passionate in character, becoming unrestrained and stormy towards the conclusion. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Latham-Koenig revel in this passionate writing and play with obvious relish.

As much as I enjoy Bebbington’s performance, he is up against a particularly impressive and valuable recording: Piers Lane used the final version (1907) and recorded it with the RLPO led by Vernon Handley in 1994 at Manchester (on EMI, coupled with Vaughan Williams’s piano concerto and Finzi’s Eclogue).
Delius wrote only a small group of works for solo piano. Included here are his Three Preludes, short pieces from 1921. Effectively played by Bebbington, the first prelude is light and rather wistful in character, the second passionate and romantic, and the third has an individuality that feels somewhat elusive. In 1913 the nineteen-year-old composer Peter Warlock prepared an attractive transcription for piano duet of Delius’s tone poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. Mark Bebbington is accompanied here by Irene Loh. They play with sensitivity and provide subdued colours in a beautiful score that is over far too soon.

The CD was recorded at St. John’s, Smith Square, London and Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth. The engineering team has provided a consistently high quality sound, clear and well balanced. The booklet contains an essay written by Robert-Matthew Walker, invaluable especially in tracing the development of Grieg’s sketches for the incomplete second piano concerto.

Mark Bebbington is in accomplished form. Delius and Grieg admirers will surely enjoy the results of this fascinating album.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Ian Lace ~ Nick Barnard



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