Mark Bebbington Programme

Friday 15 October 2021

Sponsored by The John Ireland Trust and E & D Humphreys

César Franck (1822 – 1890)Prelude, Chorale and Fugue (1884)
L. V. Beethoven (1770 – 1827)Sonata in F minor, Op 57 “Appassionata”
1. Allegro assai
2. Andante con moto
3. Allegro ma non troppo-Presto
John Ireland (1879 – 1962)“Sarnia” – An Island Sequence
1. Le Catioroc
2. In a May Morning
3. Song of the Springtides
Liszt (1811 – 1886)“Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde
LisztParaphrase de Concert from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”

Mark Bebbington Piano

The critical pundits that have greeted Mark Beddington’s performances and recordings have singled him out as a British pianist of rare refinement. Internationally recognised as a champion of British music in particular, Mark has recorded extensively for the Somm label to critical acclaim, with no fewer than nine of his recent recordings awarded 5* by BBC Music Magazine. His most recent Somm albums include piano works by Arnold Bax and Harriet Cohen (Gramophone Magazine “Editor’s Choice”) and Vaughan Williams, which reached number 4 in the UK classical charts. His 2020 Poulenc release with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Jan Latham Koenig is the first in a French music series for Resonus Classics label.

Recent seasons have seen extensive international appearances, including Mark’s Carnegie Hall debut with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra, his Buffalo Symphony Orchestra debut and a tour with the Israel Camerata and Czech National Orchestra. Within the UK, he has appeared recently in concerto with the London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Flanders Symphony Orchestra, London Mozart Players, BBC Concert Orchestra and Orchestra of the Swan. Forthcoming orchestral appearances include the Royal Philharmonic, Moscow Philharmonic, Moscow Symphony, South Florida Symphony and Stamford Symphony Orchestras.

Programme Notes

César Franck – Prelude, Chorale and Fugue

At the time of drafting this note, a court in the USA is dealing with a case in which Britney Spears’ father is alleged to have cruelly exploited his famous pop star daughter. What’s new? Many a musically gifted youngster has been exploited by a controlling father – and none more so than César Franck. He was a child prodigy as a virtuoso pianist and composer, and in order to maximise his earning potential, his ruthless father forced the child to compose and play virtuoso party pieces for superficial salon gatherings. But Franck was a quiet, introverted child, and as he aged, and lost the attractive appellation, “child prodigy”, virtuoso  
performance without the flamboyance of a Liszt or Paganini led to a decline in performance income. He had to, increasingly, turn to private teaching. This life of drudgery, from the age of 12 to 24, ended only in 1846 when, with the help and support of one of his pupils whom he later married, he found the courage to leave his tyrannical family home. The following year he accepted the post of assistant organist, the first in a succession of increasingly important organ posts culminating in his appointment as organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 – a post he held until his death in 1890. It would appear that, after the 1846 break with his family, he avoided anything to do with the piano – the instrument associated with his childhood misery. He certainly wrote nothing more for solo piano other than one children’s piece until 1884. But then he produced a masterpiece - the most deeply felt and serious work for the instrument to come out of France in the 19th century – this Prelude, Chorale and Fugue.

As the title suggests, it is a work in three movements but they are played without a break. The Prelude is very individual with an unusual texture. It is very colourful – the rather mournful main theme being interrupted by declamatory episodes based on new motifs with brief silences playing an important role. There is an immediate increase in warmth as we move into the second movement. An introductory section soon moves to sumptuous chords, arpeggiated across four octaves, as the hymn-like Choral melody makes its first of three, increasingly powerful, appearances. This is clearly the emotional centre of the work, and absolutely divine. The second movement comes to a close with a quicker episode which affects a transition into the Fugue.

The Fugue trots along quite gently until it breaks into triplets and increases in intensity. It falls back again before rising to a tremendous climax. This is followed by a swirling cadenza in which the texture from the opening Prelude returns, and as the tension subsides, an ethereal version of the Choral melody wafts in above the Prelude material. There is dynamic growth, and the masterstroke comes with the further addition of the fugal subject beneath these two elements. Thus, all three movements are combined in the triumphant ending of this amazing work.

Beethoven – Appassionata

Beethoven’s 23rd of 32 piano sonatas was written in 1804/5 but the title Appassionata (Passionate) was only added, by a publisher, some 30 years later. And, since the title so admirably suits this most explosive and tempestuous work, Appassionata it has remained. It is one of a number of ground-breaking works Beethoven wrote at a time of intense creativity in his “Heroic” or “Middle Period” as he came to terms with his increasing deafness. These include his third symphony, Eroica (1803/4) – his only opera, Leonore (1803/5) (later heavily reworked as Fidelio) – his triple concerto (1803) and the Kreutzer Sonata for violin and piano (1804).

Appassionata vies with the Moonlight, Pathétique and Waldstein for the title of best known of Beethoven’s piano sonatas but it is probably the most commented upon. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny set the ball rolling by claiming that: “- - - in many of his most beautiful works Beethoven was inspired by similar visions or pictures from his reading or from his lively imagination. It is equally certain that if it were always possible to know the idea behind the composition, we would have the key to the music and its performance. If Beethoven- - - -was perhaps thinking of ocean waves on a stormy night when from the distance a cry for help is heard, then such a picture will give the pianist a guide to the correct playing of this great tonal painting.”

Other authorities claim that the Appassionata simply reflects the nature of the composer himself – his rapid mood changes, anger, passion and despair. It has even been speculated that the raging mood of this sonata reflects the emotional turmoil Beethoven was experiencing at the time, due to being in love with both the two sisters of the work’s dedicatee, Count Franz von Brunswick! Who knows? No one! But what we do know is that it is a truly inspired creation.

The first movement is unusual in that, although in sonata form there is no exposition repeat, and instead of contrasting themes, the whole movement grows out of the quiet, ominous opening. The opening phrase, ending in a trill, is repeated a semitone higher, and after a further trill a dramatic da-da-da-dah fate motif, similar to that used in his fifth symphony, appears in the base and is then  
repeated four times, alternatively in the bass and treble. These are the seeds from which Beethoven builds a veritable forest of a movement. As a listening experience it is unforgettable in its unflagging drive, startling changes in tone and dynamics (sudden leaps from double pianissimo to double forte), and soaring flights to the boundaries of the piano’s capabilities – nowhere more so than at the end of the development section, when the fate motif is hammered out repeatedly, fortissimo. The recapitulation is followed by a long coda in which, after another explosion, the principal theme – as though exhausted – provides a hushed ending.

The second movement provides a period of calm between two storms. It consists of a slow theme followed by four variations. Again, the theme is nondescript – virtually devoid of melody but full of contemplative peace. The first variation embellishes the theme with the addition of alternating off-beat bass and treble notes in a tight cannon whilst the second and third variations add running accompaniments in the sixteenth and thirty-second notes respectively. The final variation sees a return to the humble opening without repeats and phrases displaced in pitch – but watch out, it does not end as one would expect. Instead of a major cadence (the middle movement is in D-flat major), Beethoven gives us a rolled minor chord – first played softly then repeated loudly, an octave higher – which enables the last movement, in the home key of F minor, to commence without a break.

The whirlwind final movement is a sonata-allegro in near-perpetual motion. It has much in common with the first movement but, when the coda is furiously accelerated to presto speed, the violence anti is even greater, and the work comes to a truly shattering conclusion.

Ireland – Sarnia

Born in Altringham near Manchester in 1879, John Ireland was the youngest of five children of his father’s second marriage. His father was 70 when John was born, and although his wife was 30 years younger, she died when John was just 14. His father died the following year. In his maturity, John Ireland was described as “a self-critical, introspective man, haunted by memories of a sad childhood”.  
He studied composition under Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music, and as a young man, was strongly influenced by Debussy and Ravel, and by the earlier works of Stravinsky and Bartók. He developed his own brand of “English Impressionism”, and like most Impressionist composers, he favoured small forms. He wrote no symphonies nor operas, and only one cantata, These Things Shall Be, yet it is a large-scale work – his Piano Concerto – for which he is best known. He did, however, leave a considerable legacy of excellent chamber music, piano works and English vocal music.

Sarnia is an ancient Roman name for the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. Ireland was particularly fond of these islands and was a frequent visitor. He had composed The Island Spell (the first piece of three in his 1913 set of piano pieces Decorations) whilst visiting Jersey in 1912, and in 1939, he settled in Guernsey. A bad choice. With the fall of France in 1940, he had to be evacuated back to England to avoid the Nazi occupation. But it was during this time in Guernsey that he wrote, in 1940, the first two pieces in this set of three – completing the work in 1941 after his return to England.

The first piece, Le Catioroc, takes its name from a Neolithic site in Saint Saviour where the composer would watch the sunset over the sea. He prefaced the piece with words by the first-century writer, Pomponius Mela: “All day long, heavy silence broods and a certain hidden terror lurks there. But at nightfall gleams the light of fires; the chorus of Aegipans resounds on every side; the shrilling of flutes and the clash of cymbals re-echo by the waste shores of the sea”. It has an ABA structure and starts with a hushed, plaintive melody played over a repeated, sinister base note. The intensity increases to a climax out of which a manic dotted rhythm bursts forth – suggestive of pagan partying. But the piece ends quietly with the return of the opening subject.

In a May Morning is prefaced by lines by Victor Hugo which give a nostalgic depiction of Spring. This inspired Ireland to produce one of his most expressive, tender and lyrical effusions – the glorious melody meandering, almost lazily, from the tender opening to equally tender conclusion via a more energetic central section.  
The final piece, Song of the Springtides has nothing to do with the season. Springtides occur when the relative positions of the Earth, Moon and Sun are such that the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun reinforce each other causing the tide to be extra high – and to burst forth as in a natural spring. Thus, it is a, Debussy-like, depiction of the sea, as the tide springs forth, surging and subsiding.

Liszt – Tristan und Isolde – Liebestod

This is one of Liszt’s many transcriptions of operatic material. It is, essentially, the finale of the opera – Isolde’s big Act 3 aria, “Mild und Leise” (“mild and quiet”) which Wagner had called “Verkla̎rung” (“Transfiguration). But Liszt prefaced his transcription with four bars from the Act 2 duet between Tristan and Isolde which, in the opera, are sung to the words “sehnend verlangter Liebestod” (literally: “longing demanded love-death” but more poetically: “ardently desired death in love”) and christened the piece Liebestod. It is this, Liszt’s (rather than Wagner’s) title for the final scene, which persists to this day.

Wagner is noted for his big orchestral sounds, his tender lyricism and extreme passion. We have it all in this piece and the challenge faced by Liszt (and performers) is to represent a Wagnerian orchestra and dramatic soprano at full stretch as the aria reaches its orgasmic climax before Isolde sinks to the ground in death.

Liszt – Rigoletto – Paraphrase

Liszt wrote (and played) transcriptions for a wide variety of music. Often, his transcriptions did not simply follow original melodies and harmonies but were works of considerable ingenuity in which Liszt invested his own creativity. Such a one is his take on Verdi’s Rigoletto. The thematic material comes from the famous quartet in the final Act of the opera but, in his hands, it becomes a dazzling showcase of pianism.