After a spell recording English music, pianist Mark Bebbington tells Christopher Morley of wider horizons.
In the last few years, Mark Bebbington’s career as a pianist has really taken off, with numerous engagements both in this country and abroad.
He has also assembled an impressive clutch of recordings on the SOMM label, and is deeply grateful for the support, understanding and expertise of SOMM’s owner and producer, Siva Oke.
Over a drink in the cosy Black Horse on the Halesowen bypass I ask him what is the latest tally of these CDs?
“Sixteen in the can, 10 of them released, and among those still to come is a recording with the CBSO which I hope will be out next June,” he says.
“I really enjoyed working on that, and in particular the Rawsthorne First Piano Concerto, in this version which has never been done before, for strings and percussion.
“It sounds really gritty, like Prokofiev, and I think it’s one of the great British piano concertos of the 20th century.”
Does he have any particular favourite among these recordings?
“I’ve enjoyed all of the projects, and although the majority have been English music, I would not describe myself as an ardent English music enthusiast. I’m a little bit of an English music sceptic!
“So I’ve relied on people who’ve got vastly more experience than I could ever hope to have: Lewis Foreman (English music guru), and lately, Diana McVeagh (author of major works on Elgar and Gerald Finzi), who’s been tremendous, and I really value the friendship with her.
“Lewis has been so generous in sending me copies and scores, and said, ‘you should keep away from this’, or, ‘this is a very good piece’.
“Then I have a look at it and invariably reach the same conclusion, whereas for me to be ploughing through the complete works of Arnold Bax or whoever, I don’t have that degree of knowledge to start with.
“So I do rely on people who have a far greater knowledge of this whole area, and I think we have recorded probably the best of British piano music – that is to say, Frank Bridge, who I think is fascinating: the move from the early stuff which is slightly Debussyan to the really gritty and hard-hitting world of that Piano Sonata, which is, I think, still one of the undiscovered masterpieces across any geographical boundaries of the 20th century.
“And I think John Ireland, as well, is another fascinating composer, especially those works where there’s this sort of undertow of a dark, almost menacing melancholy.
“This man leading an outwardly normal, respectable life, trudging from his home in Chelsea to the Royal College of Music for 40-plus years, and yet this inner world which was so turbid, and when that’s reflected in the music, the music unleashes a kind of force which is still today fairly provocative.”
Bebbington’s recording of the Ireland Piano Concerto is planned for release in April, coinciding with an important première of Bax’s Piano Concertino (dedicated to Harriet Cohen, but never performed) at Birmingham Town Hall with the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by David Curtis.
There is also a project to record Chopin, Rachmaninov and Debussy with CBSO co-principal cellist Eduardo Vassallo, and a completion of the four-disc solo piano output of John Ireland, “including some of the very interesting unpublished stuff, including a Rhapsody, a 10-minute work, which, when you look at it, could have been written by Rachmaninov.”
In these recordings of English piano music, Bebbington is in direct competition with releases from Ashley Wass on Naxos, and re-releases from pianists such as John Lenehan. But he doesn’t see this as a problem.
“No, to date it’s not been a problem at all. I think that the more releases there are of the best part of this music, the better it is for all of us, in the sense that it means that not only does it bring recognition to the music, but indirectly it helps to reinforce the names of the pianists who are playing this relatively neglected repertoire.”
Bebbington’s concentration on English music has helped him to emerge from a multitude of pianists whose output is less focused. But he is now moving away from it.
“To the extent that if I am now asked to programme English music, which I have to say I am, a lot of the time, and which I do with pleasure, I would now, for mainstream festivals, only include one English work.
“What I would love to do, a project above all others, I would love to record all the Rachmaninov solo piano music.
“I’d therefore be only the second English pianist to do that, after Howard Shelley. It’s a really, really deep affection for the music, and an appreciation for the nobility of the writing, that’s been so reinforced by the lessons I had, almost up until the time she died, from Phyllis Sellick, widow of the great Rachmaninov pianist Cyril Smith.
“And she showed me a signed copy of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, with the composer’s own markings and indications. The Boosey and Hawkes edition has got all the details, but Rachmaninov even then was saying, ‘no pianist does what I have asked’.”
Bebbington has been promised access to this score, now in the British Library, when he comes to record this, probably the world’s best-loved piano concerto.
Since the death of Phyllis Sellick, Bebbington has no teachers to whom he goes for consultation, though he is deeply grateful for the continued interest the veteran Italian pianist Aldo Ciccolini takes in him. In fact there are plans for the two of them to perform Mozart’s Double Piano Concerto in France next year.
Bebbington describes Ciccolini as a “workaholic”, but then reveals that most of his own 16 CDs have been recorded just during the last three-and-a-half years.
And these days he is away from his Hagley home “quite a lot. The children – a boy and a girl – are still relatively small, so I try to restrict it to five or six days at a time.
“This season there have been 48 engagements, which is nice, and this summer there were 17 recitals in the space of three weeks. It’s great to feel that happening.
“In fact, Ursula, my wife, said a fortnight ago, ‘can I make an appointment to see you?’”
* ?Mark Bebbington’s release of volume two of the piano music of Frank Bridge, recorded at the CBSO Centre, is now available on the SOMM label.