Another well-planned and superbly executed disc from Somm. Pianist Mark Bebbington has built his considerable reputation in the main through recordings of British 20th Century repertoire. Here he includes more music from this period but coupled with a staple of the piano concerto repertoire - Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor Op.16. The coupling of the Delius concerto might not seem immediately obvious until one remembers the close artistic and personal friendship that existed between the two composers - but more about later.
The disc opens with the famous Grieg concerto. It is all too easy - both as listener and player - to think; "here we go again - its the Grieg..." But as Robert Matthew-Walker writes persuasively in his excellent liner note the enduring popularity of the piece is based not just on its sheer melodic richness, the dramatic and poetical solo writing but also several formal and musical twists. These made the work, at the time of its première, strikingly original. And if a sense of that originality has been lost for the listener today what remains is a piece of remarkable sweep, confidence and indeed beauty. All of those characteristics have been captured in this new performance which successfully avoids any sense of the routine. Not that Bebbington, attentively and sensitively accompanied by the RPO under Jan Latham-Koenig, resorts to any kind of mannerism or excess to stand out from the crowd. In that sense this is a centrist interpretation but one done wonderfully well. Just listen to how simply yet expressively the orchestra phrase the opening material after a wonderfully declamatory gesture from Bebbington. Likewise the great lyrical melody played by the cellos - track 1 2:32 - played with poignant gentleness which gains in its impact by not being played with the maximum intensity it is sometimes given. Bebbington's reply is equally nuanced. The recording in London St. Johns Smith Square is very fine and truthful too - the balance between soloist and orchestra very well maintained and the [unnamed] piano caught beautifully. When the work needs power and drama it is in plentiful supply too - the big first movement cadenza is played with exactly the kind of bravura brilliance and virtuoso display that it demands. With the catalogue awash with fine performances of this piece it would be impossible to name one as better than the rest but in its own right this is very good indeed and certainly one I will return to regardless of the appeal of the remainder of the disc.
And the appeal of the remainder of the disc is very high indeed. So why couple the Grieg with the Delius? Grieg was older than Delius by nineteen years and by the time the younger composer enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatoire in 1886 Grieg was an established and famous man. Delius made friends with other Norwegian students particularly Sinding and Halvorsen and through the former met Grieg. A friendship quickly developed and it was in large part a letter from Grieg to Delius' doubting father that persuaded him to allow his son not to be part of the family business but follow his chosen path as a composer. The depth, warmth and length of the friendship is chronicled superbly in Lionel Carey's "Grieg and Delius - a chronicle of their friendship in letters" [Pub. Marion Boyars 1993]. No real surprise therefore that Delius should try to write his own Piano Concerto somewhat in the thrall of the Grieg especially since Grieg presented Delius with a copy of his concerto within days of their first meeting. But the Delius concerto had a rather chequered genesis. In 1897 he wrote a one-movement Fantasy which received only a play-through in a two piano version. This prompted Delius to recast the work in a standard three movements which was scheduled for performance in 1902 but again that never occurred. In recent times however the three-movement version has been recorded twice. Still dissatisfied, Delius revisited the score in 1906, returning to the one-movement/three-sections form and taking advice from the virtuoso Hungarian pianist Theodor Szántó regarding the effectiveness of the solo writing. Finally, it was this version that was premiered in 1907 just seven weeks after Grieg's death. Over the years, on the relatively few occasions the work has been played or recorded it is this final version in its 1951 edition by Sir Thomas Beecham - and it is the 1906 third revision that is performed here.
Before listening to this new recording I did wonder whether it would have been more apt to record the three-movement version or even possibly the original Fantasy - I do not think the latter has ever been recorded and I have no idea if the performing materials still exist. Received wisdom is that the 1906 version falls between the stools of Romantic barnstormer and Delian musing with adherents to either camp not being empathetic to the other. There is also the sense that Delius' attempts to incorporate the advice and suggestions from the well-meaning Szántó - who was the dedicatee of the work in its final form - somehow subsumed his own musical personality in a detrimental manner. There is surely some truth in all of those considerations and certainly the work is quite unlike any other Delius score even from the years of his energetic youth. But on its own terms this is a very attractive and appealing score - more obviously tuneful than many of his scores and with the kind of display keyboard writing that it is hard not to enjoy. Unlike the Grieg, the catalogue does not groan with choices. The original version comes from Hyperion and Chandos with Piers Lane and Howard Shelley respectively. For many years the only stereo version of the 1906 revision was a Decca disc played by Jean-Rodolphe Kars with historical versions preceding it from Benno Moiseiwitsch and Betty Humby Beecham. Piers Lane also recorded this revision for EMI, as did Phillip Fowke for Unicorn. Up until now I have always enjoyed that latter version most. Fowke was accompanied by Norman Del Mar - again with the RPO. Del Mar was a fine and often underappreciated conductor of Delius. I like the way very much he found a craggyness and energy in Delius - as did Vernon Handley and Charles Mackerras - that seeks to redress the perception of the composer as just a pastoral dreamer. Likewise Fowke has exactly the virtuoso approach to maximise the work's impact. However, in comparison to the new Somm disc, the Unicorn engineering from 1990 starts to sound its age with a degree of harshness not present on the new recording.
In fact I would rate this new disc as being the finest version of the revised concerto that I have heard. Again it is the potent fusion from Bebbington and Latham-Koenig of the lyrical and the rhetorical that is so compelling. They clearly relish both the big gestures and the gentle musings. This is reflected in part by the timings - never anything except a broad guide to approach - but interesting here. Bebbington runs to an expansive 24:21 in comparison to Fowke's terser 21:52. There was a live version included as part of a BBC Music Magazine cover disc from Moiseiwitsch with Malcolm Sargent and the BBC SO that trips in at a fleet 18:49 [I wonder if there are some cuts here..?]. To be clear, both Fowke and Bebbington are very good indeed in this work but I do like the extra expansiveness Bebbington finds throughout the work. Again the RPO are very impressive partners and the Somm recording is very good at catching the wide dynamic and expressive range of the piece. The greatest compliment I can pay this version is to say it has made me reconsider my estimation of the work. It will always remain apart from the central group of works by which Delius will be judged and admired but this is a performance that brings great pleasure.
The out and out novelty of this disc is the inclusion of Robert Matthew-Walker's reconstruction of the sketches of Grieg's 2nd Piano Concerto. Previously these sketches - just some 150 bars of short score and/or solo piano part have been reworked and elaborated into an extended work by Helge Evju on the Grand Piano label. On that earlier disc the listener can hear - as on the Somm recording - just Grieg's sketches. Listening to the earlier disc via the Naxos music library it is clear that Bebbington is the superior performer more sympathetically recorded on a better instrument [making allowances for compressed streaming as opposed to the CD]. The music is easily appealing - more modal and folk-orientated than the earlier work with a pleasing simplicity and directness. Bebbington plays both the Matthew-Walker orchestrated version - with just opening and closing bars added - as well as the 'original' solo/4 stave short score sketches. As with the rest of the disc Bebbington plays this with great sensitivity and musicality but in all honesty only Grieg completists will be rushing to buy this disc on account of the inclusion of these fragments.
The remaining ten minutes of this generously filled disc are given over to the three brief Piano Preludes by Delius and the transcription for piano duet by Peter Warlock of On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring. Somm have previously given us two very fine discs of Delius' orchestral works in 2 piano/Piano duet transcriptions. Cleverly, that did not include this Warlock version - it appears on a BIS disc - so this is a valuable addition to the Somm catalogue of Delius. Bebbington is joined by Irene Loh and again the performers show their sensitivity for this style of music with a beautifully flowing and well-judged performance. The three preludes are slight but again beautifully performed. The recording of the solo/duet works came from a different session at a different location but again the Somm engineering is of an exemplary quality.
So all in all another very fine Somm disc indeed with music making of the highest quality matched by fine engineering and an illuminating liner. A Grieg Concerto the equal of any I have heard, the most enjoyable version of the Delius Concerto I know and a novelty world premiere to boot. All round excellence.