Friday, February 4, 2022

St John’s, Smith Square, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

Mark Bebbington is tireless in his promotion of British piano music, predominantly from the twentieth-century, and his current series of lunchtime recitals, under the umbrella title of “Notes from a small island”, celebrates the range and quality of this repertoire. He opened with the premiere of Robert Matthew-Walker’s The Fields are White Already (A contemplation for solo piano in memoriam John McCabe), Opus 153. McCabe died in 2015, and Matthew-Walker completed his tribute last year.

Like McCabe and the third composer in Bebbington’s programme, Robert Simpson, Matthew-Walker is one of music’s polymaths, with a formidable, often bracingly articulated grasp of the last century’s stylistic explosion in all sorts of music, and an insatiable and passionate curiosity for what makes music tick. “The Fields are White Already” is a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the piece is a meditation on life and achievement. Around ten minutes long, it has a suspended quality that embraces memory, moments of high anxiety and ecstasy, and a touching, quizzical acceptance. The high-lying arpeggiated writing has a pre-impressionist French flavour, with an opening figure that manages to bind the music even as its shape gets smudged. Matthew-Walker sustains an arc of gathering suggestion and revelation that steers clear of explicit definition with great subtlety, his piano writing flattered by Bebbington’s impeccable clarity. The piece ends with an oblique cadential resolution, like a signature painted at the bottom of a canvas, which movingly summed up its otherworldly aspiration.

The spirit of Haydn was present in the other two works. In his Variations and Finale on a Theme by Haydn (1948), Robert Simpson set about deconstructing the Minuet from Haydn’s Sonata in A (Hob.26), which is marked to be played ‘al Rovescio’ (in reverse), so it forms a palindrome. Bebbington’s performance of this massive work ensured that Simpson’s elaborate, rather learned skill collaborated with Haydn’s wit – there is a passage recalling Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of Animals – until the Haydn inspiration yields to Beethoven in ‘Hammerklavier’ mode for the fugues and trills of the Finale. This is music built to last.

Simpson was a producer at the BBC for years and made a film on Bruckner for BBC Two. That wouldn’t happen now. Back in the 1970s John McCabe recorded the complete Haydn Sonatas, I think the first pianist to do so, but it is the spirit of Liszt and that of Messiaen that surge through McCabe’s Tenebrae, written in 1993, partly as a memorial to Sir Charles Groves, William Mathias and Stephen Oliver. Bebbington’s command of the music’s ferocious romanticism, uncompromising seriousness, colossal scope and big sound leaves a deep impression.