In shape and the development of its constituent parts it really is a ‘sonata’, but like a true jazz classic it offers almost limitless possibilities of legitimate reading and performance style, from great strictness to total freedom of phrase and rubato, from austerity to self-indulgence, from the heroic to the poetic, the bravura to the inward. A definitive reading is untenable even as a concept; the exposure of one quality leads to the submersion of another. The first movement has a distinctly improvisatory flavour with a good deal of flamboyance. Triadic tonalities (largely in sevenths) and sharply syncopated figures predominate. The second subject, Presto, lends itself to genuine blues harmonizations and forms the climax to the development section (Marcato e molto rubato fortissimo). Lambert himself had a particular affection for the second movement, a blues in rondo form. The opening is slow and harmonically impressionistic with a prominent triplet figure leading to the blues melody against a guitar-like accompaniment—ironic and grotesque. The two episodes are scurrying and sotto voce, like hearing a distant dance band through a haze of Gauloises bleues—or some less legal substance perhaps.
After a slow introduction, the Finale is fast—often extremely fast—with a texture juxtaposing single notes, two-part writing of almost eighteenth-century poise and clarity, and saturated chords. A Fugato development balances that of the first movement and the dazzling work ends with a final backward glance to the opening. Cecil Gray’s celebrated description of the Sonata as having ‘the dark, black, Célinesque quality inspired by long, cat-like prowlings through the suburbs of Paris’ captures its spirit splendidly and, for all its pianistic brilliance, there is no hiding from its undertow of introspection and disquiet. The premiere, by Gordon Bryan, took place at Aeolian Hall, London, in October 1929 when it shared a concert with (inter alia) the as-yet still incomplete Li-Po songs. It has continued to baffle and intrigue pianists in equal measure ever since.
from notes by Giles Easterbrook © 1995