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Music for Piano and Orchestra by Ferguson, Finzi, Austin, Rawsthorne

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With this important new release featuring four works for Piano & Orchestra, two of these premiere recordings, pianist Mark Bebbington and SOMM continue their intrepid exploration of British Piano Music written in the first half of the 20th century, this time with the wonderful City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the expert baton of Conductor Howard Williams.

Mark Bebbington – Piano
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Howard Williams – Conductor

Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) was born in Lancashire and at the age of 19 he entered the Royal Northern College of Music to study cello, piano and composition, later becoming a pupil of Egon Petri, Busoni’s pupil, in Berlin. His earliest compositions of note date from the 1930s. One of these was the First Piano Concerto, the original version of which was scored for strings and percussion. It was premiered in 1939 by Iris Lemare conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with Alfred Hallis as soloist. Rawsthorne’s later re-scoring, in 1942 for full orchestra became a favourite of Constant Lambert who conducted it at the Proms in 1945 with Phyllis Sellick as soloist.

This first recording of the original version, by SOMM, provides us with a rare opportunity to hear it for strings and percussion , as first conceived. Rawsthorne’s first thoughts on this work allow it to emerge as a much grittier piece and the percussive nature of much of the piano writing comes into its own set against the pithier orchestration, thus highlighting its clarity and wit, and what John McCabe called  as Rawthorn’s  ‘scintillating… subtle vivacity’.

Frederic Austin’s Piano Concertino also receives its first recording on this disc. Austin (1872-1952) was an important musical figure and celebrated opera singer in the early 1900s as well as a composer and administrator and jointly, with Sir Thomas Beecham, the first Adviser to the Delius Trust. The Piano Concertino, adapted here for a smaller orchestra of strings, harp and percussion by composer David Ellis, is shrouded in mystery. It was commissioned from Austin in 1943 by his friend, conductor Ernest Irving and it’s a fair assumption that it was intended for a film as the full score and parts are stamped on every page “Aug-Dec 1944 Ealing Film Studios – Music Dept”. It’s well crafted, opening with a catchy “wooden soldier” rhythm in the first movement followed by a beguiling, wistful theme introducing  the second movement Andante Lamentoso as well as becoming its core. This is followed by a jaunty third movement (Allegro Vivo) needing some fleet finger-work from the soloist, and ending with an unostentatious but effective cadenza.

The disc is coupled with two works for String Orchestra. Finzi’s Eclogue was first performed by Kathleen Long and the Kalmar Orchestra in London in 1957. It is one of the supreme examples of English Pastoralism  and the essence of what Edmund Rubbra called ‘untroubled serenity’. It was originally intended to be the slow movement following the Grand Fantasia of 1928-9, itself planned as part of a concerto for piano and strings.

Howard Ferguson’s Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra is a much  darker work, its first two movements  filled with brooding melancholy. Bruce Phillips, writer of the CD booklet notes, describes it as “a beautifully laid out, classical, three-movement work that takes its place among the best of British piano concertos…. the slow movement Theme and Variations interpose a note of Celtic melancholy between the confident, astringent assertion of the first movement and the cheerful, out-of-doors optimism of the finale.”

The work was commissioned by  the Northern Ireland branch of CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the forerunner of the Arts Council of Great Britain) to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951.

The following have been selected from amongst many excellent reviews of British Piano Music recorded by SOMM with Mark Bebbington.

Piano Music by Gurney and Ferguson (SOMMCD 038)
“The whole release is revelatory… keep the hanky close by.”
American Record Guide, June 2006.

Piano Music by Arnold and Lambert  (SOMMCD 062)
“Bebbington enhances his reputation in music by two gifted, jazz-loving Brits… has all the stylish aplomb, improvisatory freedom and infectious swagger one could wish for… intrepidly communicative…”
Gramophone Editor’s Choice, February 2007.

(Bridge Vol. II SOMMCD 083)
“… reveals the profound and poetic in Bridge… Bebbington seems to consistently probe deeper into the music’s expressive core. Greater fluidity of tempo, subtler pedalling and phrasing, a wider range of colour and dynamics all characterise his approach.”
BBC Music Magazine 5* Instrumental Choice, September 2008

“…a magnificent record. Mark Bebbington.. a pianist of exceptional quality whose understanding of and ability to communicate Bridge’s music is first-rate in every regard. Deserves to be in every collection.”
Robert MatthewWalker, Musical Opinion July/August 2008

(Ireland Vol. I SOMMCD 074)
”…his approach to the brooding and combative Piano Sonata is to give the harmony time enough to breathe, in order to go more intensely into its emotional life. The mystical aspects of the three Channel Island pieces collected as Decorations have seldom been more sensitively brought out. Enthusiasts for Ireland’s piano works have good reason to want all three pianists’ view of the repertoire. If, like me, you would be content with just one, I would choose Bebbington…..”

BBC Music Magazine, October 2008
5***** Performance
5***** Recording

”For first-timers, however, Bebbington’s programme provides a pretty much ideal introduction, containing two of Ireland’s most popular and durable achievements, namely Decorations and London Pieces – both given with such winning aplomb, scrupulous care and heartwarming sense of new discovery that I found myself falling in love with them all over again (the vernally fresh Chelsea Reach positively beams with joy). Elsewhere, Bebbington displays wonderful control in the leaner-textured and economically argued Sonatina, just as he is acutely responsive to the fearful undertow of the Ballade. Somm’s sound is clear and true. Roll on Vol. 2 ! ”
Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone October 2008

”The music leans towards the Impressionistic school of writing, to which Mark Bebbington brings an intrinsic understanding…..(later) Bebbington explodes into life, giving the interpretation its wow factor.”
International Piano SELECTION, September/October 2008

” …in Bebbington’s hands, these are particularly compelling and systematically thought-through performances. Although he nods implicitly in the direction of the thoroughly grounded readings of previous recordings, Bebbington also dares to propose alternative priorities and insights….
I look forward with eagerness to Mark Bebbington’s second instalment.”
International Record Review, June 2008

” Song of the Springtides…the new recording from Mark Bebbington and under his fingers, this movement revelling in the ebb and flow of Ireland’s portrait of the sea…. The smaller pieces are deliciously done, too.”
BBC Radio 3 CD Review, 27th June 2009

Mark Bebbington is fast gaining a reputation as one of today’s most strikingly individual young British pianists. His recent discs of British music for SOMM’s New Horizons series have met with unanimous critical acclaim and his Arnold and Lambert disc (SOMMCD 062) and Frank Bridge Piano Music Volume 1 (SOMMCD 056) have featured as a Gramophone Magazine Editor’s Choice and BBC Music Magazine’s 5 stars Instrumental Choice, respectively.

Over recent seasons Mark has toured extensively throughout Central and Northern Europe, the Far East and North Africa and has performed at major UK venues with the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia and London Mozart Players. As a recitalist he makes regular appearances at major UK and International Festivals.

A Recipient of numerous international awards and prizes, including a Leverhulme Scholarship and a Winston Churchill Fellowship, Mark studied at the Royal College of Music with Phyllis Sellick and Kendall Taylor and in Italy with Aldo Ciccolini.

His close collaboration with SOMM extends to over 15 discs (some of these yet to be released),  made up almost exclusively of recordings of English Piano Music.

In October 2009 SOMM will feature an exciting new release of a premier recording of a work still unpublished —  Bax’s Concertino for Piano & Orchestra SOMMCD 093, dedicated by Bax to Harriet Cohen but still left incomplete at the time of his death. It was recently orchestrated and completed by Bax’s Editor Graham Parlett who was commissioned by the Bax Trust to complete the work. This is coupled with the Ireland Piano Concerto and Legend for Piano & Orchestra with The Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by David Curtis.

On This Recording

  1. : I. Allegro
  2. : II. Theme and Variations
  3. : III. Allegro gioviale
  4. Eclogue: Eclogue, Op. 10
  5. Concertino: I. Allegro non troppo
  6. Concertino: II. Andante lamentoso
  7. Concertino: III. Allegro vivo
  8. : I. Capriccio: Allegro molto – Presto
  9. : II. Chaconne: Andante con moto
  10. : III. Tarantella: Vivace