Mark Bebbington, pianist extraordinaire and champion of British music, plays Leighton Buzzard

On Saturday 22nd February Leighton Buzzard Music Club achieved another musical coup:  they brought to the Library Theatre’s stage the critically acclaimed pianist, Mark Bebbington. Mr Bebbington records  the work of modern – particularly British – composers on the Somm ‘New Horizons’ label. Thus it was that Mr Bebbington warmed up his audience with some Haydn and Schubert before devoting the second half of the programme to the music of John Ireland.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. First I must mention the socks. Musicians – especially male musicians – tend to be conservative dressers. They don’t like their sartorial preferences to get in the way of the music. So there isn’t much to inform an audience, before the first piece has got fairly under way, as to what sort of musician the chap on the stage is. Not so with Mark Bebbington who, whilst conventionally garbed in black, sported a pair of socks apparently based on Google’s logo. I like a little subversion in my musicians: this augured well. So, a word to the wise – if you want to know what’s coming, check out the musician’s socks.

He began the recital with Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 40 in G major, which I haven’t heard before. The music was full of decorations and modulations between major and minor keys, requiring a delicate approach as well as an accurate one. This was particularly so when the accidentals and runs (like mice cavorting on the keys) evident in the first movement became mice performing gymnastics in the Presto. An exuberant piece which built to an uber-exuberant climax. Great fun!

As the applause faded he plunged straight into Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat major: the one with thunder rumbling around in the left hand at the beginning. It is full of emotion – majestic, yearning and grief-stricken. And was, indeed, the last piece Schubert completed before he died. The second movement begins with a single, funereal bell which then becomes a joyous peal. The third movement shows us a happy, busy man. But that theme cannot be sustained for long and anarchy soon intrudes, before order is restored and the music becomes relaxed to the point where it resembles barrelhouse piano. Finally sturm und drang become general in the final, ecstatic Allegro. And that, as they say, is all he wrote.

Before beginning to play after the interval Mr Bebbington rued the fact that John Ireland’s music has become ‘unjustly neglected’. I can vouch for that ‘unjustly’, having sung some choral Ireland recently in a concert which also included pieces by Britten and Moeran, two of Ireland’s pupils; motifs from those two composers are constantly foreshadowed in Ireland’s music.

Ireland was influenced by Debussy and Ravel. He was particularly adept at communicating the movement of water, demonstrated for us by ‘The Island Spell’ (from Decorations published in 1915) and Amberley Wild Brooks, written about the area of Sussex in which he lived. There is an echo of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes in both pieces.

The substantial London Pieces, comprising ‘Chelsea Reach’, ‘Ragamuffin’ and ‘Soho Forenoons’ also draw on Ireland’s surroundings, when he lived in London. ‘Ragamuffin’, for instance, is based around a tune Ireland heard an urchin whistling in the street.

As finale Mr Bebbington gave us the fiercely difficult First Rhapsody in F-sharp minor, which is so seldom played that the music has never been published. Or perhaps the rationale is the other way around. Whichever, Mark Bebbington played from the manuscript. Rachmaninov, and Liszt, inform this music. It has a filmic quality, is by turns romantic, then urgent and vibrant and throughout is full of ravishing tunes.

Our warm applause moved Mr Bebbington to give us a substantial encore – Chopin’s spirited ‘Scherzo’.

Mark Bebbington is a passionate advocate of modern music; which, under his hands, becomes both beautiful and beautifully explained.

He is recording the whole of John Ireland’s oeuvre. If you want to know more about that try these links: http://www.markbebbington.co.uk/ and http://www.somm-recordings.com/somm/newhorizons.php

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