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Concerto for piano and nine players

autumn 1930 to December 1931; first performed by Arthur Benjamin, Lambert conducting, on 18 December 1931; dedicated to Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock)

With the Concerto for piano and nine players we enter areas of great disquiet and introspection. Many claim it is Lambert’s masterpiece, though much the same claim is made in favour of The Rio Grande, the Li-Po songs, the Dirge from Cymbeline and Summer’s Last Will and Testament; Horoscope, too, has its devoted following—all of which reminds us that with Lambert there is no such thing as a typical or conventional work. Every composition has its special flavour, its unique identity and agenda. Ideas are peculiar to each work and in both content and treatment every piece in newly minted. (Having said this, it is only fair to mention that this is actually his second piano concerto—the first, for piano, two trumpets, timpani and string orchestra, was left in short score in 1924, unperformed at the time, but orchestrated and prepared for performance by the late Edward Shipley and the present writer in 1987—it is recorded on Hyperion CDA67545.) As in the case with all his ensemble pieces, the instrumentation was chosen with the utmost care, without the least thought for what would give it the greatest chance of performance but purely with an ear to giving him the precise range of timbre and texture to suit those exact tasks to be carried out in the context of the individual work—just as in The Rio Grande, where he requested a male alto rather than a mezzo, and one performing the solos from within the choir.

The Concerto uses flute (doubling piccolo), three clarinets (doubling on various members of the family including bass and E flat), trumpet, trombone, cello, string bass and percussion; the effect is starkly incisive, verging on abrasive, but offering a startling range of flavours to which Lambert devotes endless pains and accuracy of imaginative skill. Harshness is always balanced by lightness and life so that it never degenerates into the sort of aggressive gritty mush to be found in, say, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto. Even at its moments of deepest gloom the fresh air never ceases to blow through it: it lies uncompromisingly exposed as if under the energizing but unremitting glare of the sunlight of Marseilles where it was largely composed. Eventually completed very shortly before its premiere (18 December 1931, Arthur Benjamin—another Australian—as soloist, Lambert conducting), almost a year to the day after the death of Philip Heseltine (to whose memory it was dedicated), the work had exercised him since some time in the autumn of 1930.

This was a very mixed time for Lambert. Recognition as a composer was coming his way, with several high-profile performances of different pieces. The Rio Grande continued its triumphant progress and received its first commercial recording (with a male alto as preferred, Hamilton Harty at the piano and Lambert conducting). Professionally he began the association with Ninette de Valois which resulted in the formation of the Vic-Wells Ballet and in turn prevented him from ever again having quite the same amount of time for composition.

Personally, though it culminated in his marriage to the highly desirable Miss Florence Chuter, it was a time of tragedy. May 1930 saw the death of his father, August that of his great friend the painter Christopher Wood, and 17 December the death of Heseltine—frequently host to Lambert, Walton, Moeran, Gray and many another variously incandescent musical luminary (also companion on many an escapade, fellow detective in the mysteries of past musical byways, role model both beneficial and baleful, energizer and destroyer to many other than Lambert, but to Lambert more than most). The death hit him hard, and he decided that the Concerto would be in his old friend’s memory. In late February 1931 at the Warlock Memorial Concert at Wigmore Hall, Lambert conducted The Curlew—one of the bleakest pieces ever written—and later recorded the work for the National Gramophone Society in a reading that has never been approached for atmosphere or insight. The present writer is convinced that there is in fact an oblique reference to the work in the second movement of the Concerto, but has yet to meet anyone who agrees: it is mentioned with some diffidence.

For all its restlessness and almost obsessed vigour, the Concerto certainly is a work of the deepest seriousness. It is also an extremely complex piece both in concept and articulation. The jazz-blues style pioneered in The Rio Grande and considerably absorbed in the Sonata, is here assimilated to such a degree that the composer can use it more or less unselfconsciously to perform certain structural tasks, while at the same time he is able to extend and develop its expressive possibilities far beyond the normal confines of contemporary jazz style without diluting its identity. The first movement, Overture, does not merely state the material of the work (though it does indeed do this); it is also a highly personalized sonata in its own right with exposition, development and recapitulation concepts. ‘Concepts’ rather than ‘sections’ because, under the smoke-screen of a genuinely improvisatory jazz riff, Lambert is able to blur the edges, displace and overlap the passages without invalidating the form. There is not an actual hard spot where ‘exposition’ ends and ‘development’ begins, though ear and brain are very much conscious that such things are going on. Indeed the opening 7/4 figure recurs at pivotal points, in both raw and developed forms, throughout the piece. It is a two-way business though, and if Lambert employs jazz conceits to ‘compromise’ traditional formal matters, he likewise subverts and ‘de-clichés’ the patterns themselves. By taking them into remote time signatures like 7/4, 11/8, 13/8 and the rest he creates passages of continuously unfolding narrative where one’s sense of the bar line is utterly undermined, where he reverses the polarity of main beat and syncopation to introduce a calculated ambiguity of pattern that is forever wrong-footing the listener, shifting the stress in the shape or shapes round the stress and cutting the ground from under the feet of the listener’s expectations in a way that is deeply disturbing, without any apparent reason (unless the score is studied). It is masterly, artless, subtle and spooky.

The second movement, Intermède, has much in common with the equivalent in the Sonata, combining the roles of slow movement and scherzo. Very prominently placed, perhaps to distract the attention from more personal matters, there run through it (as in the Finale) various developed versions of the Overture’s opening figure. More importantly, though, it is the abode of ghosts. There is a slow, dark, sad opening, which returns at the end of the movement where the spirit of the curlew, if not its actual cry, may (without the need for any self-deception) be identified. Between them though comes an hysterical, remorseless section of frantic energy in whose depths live the spectres of two of Warlock’s most personal and mystical works. Notice the passage for flute, piano and maraca (round about figure 42) where the piano reveals itself to be giving us a grotesque version of the accompaniment to ‘Corpus Christi’, or the following section—a manically high-spirited paraphrase of ‘The Frost-bound Wood’. To talk about the combination of themes, patterns, rhythmical complexities and so on is to miss the point entirely. This piece is about altogether different, darker matters. It is about exorcism and therapy.

Nor do things improve much with the Finale. It is not actually called ‘cortège’ but it might well have been. Like the opening of the Finale of the Sonata the marking is ‘Lugubre’ but, unlike the Sonata, this movement maintains its claustrophobic, steady tread throughout. It opens with a cry from the heart, a lost soul. At the equivalent place where the subject in the first movement is taken up doppio movimento in the Overture, it is here introduced doppio valore—a section of extraordinary tenderness and gentleness, the marking con stanchezza (with weariness); it is not resignation so much as ennui. We are then treated to a section of appalling self-parody and a macabre lampoon of music from The Rio Grande, specifically the passage where the text reads ‘The noisy streets are empty and hushed is the town’ and ‘a space of silence through the town’, as if all the joy has gone out of the world and the composer is mocking happier days. If there is any humour in it, then it is of the grimmest kind. Technically the composer’s head is still in charge of the development of the material—as is that of Mahler at the end of Symphony No 6—but the soul is in torment. After a scarifying climax the music dribbles away in a brief coda to end teasingly, enigmatically and in darkness. A stiff drink is required before this section can even be contemplated. One imagines a man on the verge of disintegration, a man in shock, doubting even himself, saved narrowly from extinction and the jaws of a vengeful demon by the timely, unexpected and joyous upturn in affairs of the heart. The effect of Cupid’s fiery dart may be only of short duration, but it does a good job while it is there.

from notes by Giles Easterbrook © 1995


Lambert: Piano Concerto & other works


Movement 1: Overture (Allegro) – Cadenza – Andante espressivo – Doppio movimento – Coda (Allegro molto)
Movement 2: Intermède (Andante recitando) – Allegro scherzando – Più mosso – Andante tranquillo – Allegro non troppo
Movement 3: Finale: Lugubre

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