Homage and Reminiscence on John Ireland Anniversary

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ireland, Liszt, Poulenc: Mark Bebbington (piano), City Museum & Art Gallery, Plymouth, 19.4.2012 (PRB)

John Ireland: The Island Spell
Month’s Mind
Elegy and Minuet (Downland Suite)
Amberley Wild Brooks
Liszt: Valse Impromptu
Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor
Poulenc: Hommage à Edith Piaf
Suite Napoli

If you were talking about English composers who wrote for the piano, it’s unlikely that John Ireland would come top of any list. Yet, in the hands of a gifted exponent, his music, and especially that for piano, whether solo or in combination with other instruments, should surely demand a genuine reappraisal of the composer’s current neglect today.

The recital was preceded by a brief biopic of Ireland’s life introduced in this the fiftieth anniversary of his death by the John Ireland Trust Chairman, Bruce Phillips, and a short description of the pieces to be played. Pianist, Mark Bebbington quickly showed why there is indeed much to be savoured and enjoyed in John Ireland’s totally idiomatic and effective writing for the instrument.

The Island Spell used to be a favourite choice for aspiring piano diploma candidates, but has since tended to lose its appeal, In Bebbington’s shimmering account, which utterly captured the magic in the writing, the similarity with textures reminiscent of the French Impressionists, and Debussy in particular, was abundantly clear to see.

Month’s Mind is quite different in character, wistful and enquiring throughout, and stripped of the technical demands of the opening work. This is a piece which totally encapsulates the quite individual harmonic language of the composer, bitter-sweet with its fair share of dissonance, but never added for mere effect alone. Headed by a quotation from Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities: “…days which our ancestors called their ‘Month’s Mind’, as being the special days whereon their souls (after death) were had in special remembrance – hence the expression of ‘having a Month’s Mind’, to imply a longing desire”, the piece is a prime example of Ireland’s mastery of the piano miniature, and Bebbington’s well-considered account fully expressed its sense of gentle longing.

Elegy and Minuet from the Downland Suite are overtly more pastoral in nature, and here the reading finely emphasised the lyrical nature, while never becoming too sentimental in the process, finally leaving the virtuosity of Amberley Wild Brooks, with its Ravel-like figurations, to provide the perfect end to this part of the lunchtime programme.

Technical mastery was still very much to the fore in Liszt’s Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor, preceded by a delightful aperitif in the shape of the composer’s Valse Impromptu. In as much as these operatic fantasies were created to provide the general public of the nineteenth century with the opportunity to hear the ‘best bits’ from operas of the day, where actually attending a fully-blown performance might not have been viable, Mark Bebbington’s reading of the Donizetti original did exactly what it said on the tin.

The idea to conclude with another composer whose piano music is also somewhat neglected worked well, with Poulenc’s Hommage à Edith Piaf creating the ideal prelude to his Suite Napoli, where the fiendishly difficult finale was despatched with great bravura, and confirmed why it often used to feature as the barnstorming finale to recitals from some of the previous generation’s greats, such as Arrau and Rubinstein.

If there was one complaint, it was merely that the small-sized grand, with its limited tonal range, simply didn’t do the music, or pianist, full justice in performance.

Philip R Buttall