Mark Bebbington

Piano Music by Malcolm Arnold & Constant Lambert

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This release presents music by a pair of composers whose reputations have been on the rise in Britain and are starting to show up more often elsewhere as well. It was not so much the jazz element in the music of Malcolm Arnold and Constant Lambert that led to the disfavor with which these piano works met after World War II, as Robert Matthew-Walker argues in his booklet notes. What really raised the ire of modernists was that both composers dared to write music that was fun. The connections between the two composers, about half a generation apart, are nicely sketched out by Matthew-Walker, and they result in more than just a highly individualistic treatment of conventional tonality and a continuing openness to Gershwin's influence. There's a rapid-fire shift of perspectives, a sort of stylistically careening quality, that's common to the music here, but in neither case does that mean the loss of intellectual rigor and an underlying sober quality. Consider the Lambert Suite in 3 Movements (and note that the tracks for it are unfortunately misnumbered on the back cover). As Matthew-Walker observes, one moves from Satie in the opening movement to Petrushka-era Stravinsky in the middle one, yet the whole thing hangs together somehow. Each half of the program begins with its respective composer's piano sonata, each of which takes off from Gershwin in an individual way that seems to owe little to either French or German antecedents. Pianist Mark Bebbington catches the rather intellectual manipulation of jazz rhythms that's common to both composers; a phrase will often begin with straightforward jazz rhythms and then call them into question as the music unfolds. To pull this effect off, it's necessary not to overdo the jazz element, and Bebbington avoids this trap. He is beautifully attuned to the wit, the intelligence, and the stylistic plurality of all the music here. Try the final Elegiac Blues, a sort of glorified lounge piece, to hear a sample of his careful and detailed approach. Birmingham's empty Symphony Hall works unexpectedly well as a sound environment as Bebbington brings the immediacy of a live performance to his readings. Especially for non-British listeners this disc will be a real find.

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