I'm a little surprised that there has been no review of this now-ten-year-old disc heretofore at Amazon. It's an essential collection of chamber music from the pen of one of that remarkable generation of British musicians born just after the turn of the 20th century. Constant Lambert was born the same year as Michael Tippett and Alan Rawsthorne, 1905. He was a prodigy and two of the pieces here ('Mr Bear Squash-You-All-Flat' and 'Eight Poems of Li-Po') were composed before his twentieth birthday. To later generations he has probably been best known for his trenchant book about modern music, 'Westward, Ho!' (1934) which contains some remarkably sound, even prescient, judgments about trends in music of the time. He was a musical jack-of-all-trades, functioning as composer, pianist, conductor, music administrator, educator, writer and impresario. Surely, though, posterity will remember him primarily as a composer of original and elegantly crafted music that incorporates jazz elements into a neo-classic style that is uniquely his. Those characteristics are present in the works presented here although one can detect a maturation and solidification of his personal style as one moves from the very early 'Mr Bear' (1924) to the latest piece here, the Piano Concerto (1931).
'Mr Bear Squash-You-All-Flat' lay unperformed until 1979, 55 years after it was written, for reasons that are not clear. It was then put on by music students at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and until this recording that was its only prior exposure. It is a trifle, to be sure, but certainly worth hearing. It is rather like Walton's contemporaneous 'Façade,' that famous, even notorious, chamber piece with spoken poetry. (It is of note that Lambert was a friend of Walton's and the Sitwells' and actually performed as 'Speaker' in a presentation of 'Façade' in 1926.) 'Mr Bear' is scored for eight players--flute doubling piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, piano and two percussionists. The spoken text is supposedly based on a Russian folk tale (although a precise source for it has never been found) which is rather a shaggy dog (or bear) story that frankly is a little tiresome. Nigel Hawthorne, that wonderful actor probably known best to Americans from the BBC series, 'Yes, Minister,' does as fine a job as one could ask with the narration, although he does tend to chew the curtain a bit. The music could easily stand on its own, and my guess is that future performances might very well dispose with the narration. There is some indication that Lambert intended the music to accompany a ballet and frankly one suspects it might work better that way, with the narration translated into dance. One last thought about it: I kept being reminded not only of 'Façade' but also of Stravinsky's 'L'Histoire du Soldat,' not least because of Lambert's incorporation of ragtime rhythms and bluesy harmonies.
Two years after Lambert had written 'Mr Bear,' he began composing 'Eight Poems of Li-Po.' That Chinese poet had inspired music from such disparate composers as Mahler ('Das Lied von der Erde') and Arthur Bliss ('The Woman of Yueh'). These eight pieces take up only fourteen minutes, being very brief settings of Li-Po's terse, evocative and coolly distanced poems about nature, nostalgia and lost love. Written when Lambert was in thrall to the American silent movie actress Anna May Wong and dedicated to her, they convey a restrained passion that ends with 'The Long-Departed Love,' which acknowledges the impossibility of his love. Miss Wong, a third-generation Chinese-American from California who was more flapper than mysterious Chinese seductress and who chewed gum and spouted American slang, would have been amused, I suspect, at Lambert's musical love letter. Nonetheless, these are exquisite settings of exquisite poetry whose restraint and delicacy make them all the more effective. The singer is Philip Langridge whose diction and ability to convey musical line are perfect for these songs. The instrumental accompaniment is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, string quartet, and double bass, with addition of bassoon and percussion for the latter three songs. The writing is evocative and delicate, showing to advantage Lambert's extraordinary ear for instrumental atmosphere.
The 'Piano Sonata' dates from 1929 and is in three movements. It is written in jazzy rhythms and bluesy harmonies, reminding one at times of Gershwin, Milhaud or Ravel. If one didn't know the sonata's provenance one would be hard put to place its nationality of origin. It is clear that by the late 1920s Lambert had completely assimilated into his own style the yeasty ferment that jazz provided for composers of that era. In Lambert's output, this piece comes right after one of his undisputed masterpieces, 'Rio Grande.' Whereas in 'Rio Grande' the jazz-inflected style was obvious and external to suit Sacheverell Sitwell's jazz-age text, in the Piano Sonata the jazz harmonies and rhythms have been internalized to a remarkable degree. Particularly striking is the second movement described accurately by Giles Easterbrook in his exceedingly helpful and lengthy booklet notes as 'a blues in rondo form.' There are impressionist harmonies mixed with more obviously blues harmonies and one can hear, at this early date, something that reminds one of the music of later giants such as Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. The finale is a scurrying presto (after an introduction marked 'lugubre') that devolves into a spectacularly sassy fugato featuring clashing minor seconds and ninths, before ending in a pensive look back to the first movement.
The most impressive work on this CD (and indeed it is given pride of place on the front of the CD cover) is the wonderful 'Concerto for Piano and Nine Players.' This is his second piano concerto, actually. He wrote one in his teens, also for chamber accompaniment, but it was left in short score only to be revived and recorded (beautifully, one might add) by pianist David Owen Norris, accompanied by Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra long after his death. The present work, written just after his dear friend, fellow composer Philip Heseltine (better known as 'Peter Warlock') committed suicide. This is a virtuoso work for the pianist and in spite of its accompaniment by only nine instruments, it sounds for all the world like a 'real' concerto with its power and extraordinarily 'big'-sounding orchestration. I don't quite know how Lambert accomplished this, but one certainly doesn't get the feeling that this is a little piece, a chamber piece. Lambert quotes musical themes written by his dead friend (most particularly from Warlock's 'The Frost-Bound Wood'). The first movement is a big sonata-movement form with jagged rhythms (much of the movement is in 7/4, with excursions into 11/8 and 13/8) and stark harmonies which are leavened by the crystalline glitter of treble piano figurations. One is unprepared, after the sudden halt of the first movement, for the quiet, anguished opening (bass clarinet, muted trumpet and trombone, with piccolo keening high above them) of the middle movement, 'Intermède.' (Is this opening a reference of one of Warlock's most heart-wrenching songs, 'The Curlew,' whose call is suggested here?) A faster section follows that maintains the quiet, almost desperate sadness of the earlier material; jazzy rhythms in the piano do little to dispel this--rather they suggest a kind of frantic desperation. Trombone glisses add a sardonic note. A couple of other passages alternating fast and slow tempi lead to a recurrence of the opening section in even bleaker orchestration. The finale is not a relief of tension as one might expect. It is marked, like the last movement of the piano sonata, 'Lugubre.' It sounds for all the world like a funeral procession, and perhaps that is what is intended. The piano has extended solo passages, slow and musing, that seem to paint an aloneness that perhaps the composer was feeling. There is a brave attempt at keeping a stiff upper lip, but underneath there is this unbearable sadness. For all the polish and almost Parisian urbanity, one hears utter desolation. Withal, Lambert manages to create a satisfying formal development of this material before he comes to a coda that quotes the opening material and then more or less just fades into the darkness, almost as if the composer doesn't have the energy to do much about it. The Piano Concerto is the first work on the CD and Hyperion has had the great wisdom to leave a very long period of silence at the end of the final movement, almost time enough to recover one's wits before the musicians start up again with the Li-Po songs. There is one previous recording of the piano concerto that I'm aware of: Richard Rodney Bennett accompanied by Neville Dilkes and the English Sinfonia. This performance is much superior because pianist and instrumentalists (and not least, conductor Lionel Friend) find the right combination of desolation and hysteria in this music. A powerful experience.