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Sonata for piano

1929; first performed by Gordon Bryan at the Aeolian Hall, London, in October 1929

The Piano Sonata was completed in 1929 when Lambert was barely twenty-four and lies, spiritually and stylistically as well as chronologically, between The Rio Grande and the Concerto. A transitional work certainly, but at least as interesting (and important) for what it is as for what it reflects or anticipates. Lambert wrote it partly in London, but mostly in the south of France, specifically Toulon, the more squalid part of which seaport he was visiting as a ‘corrective’ to the gentility of Bath and Bad Homburg where he was fulfilling conducting engagements: ‘to catch up on a bit of depravity’. Like The Rio Grande it draws heavily on jazz, but what started as something of an assumed style is by now much more an absorbed habit of thought. True there is the same breezy, undogmatic contrapuntal expertise, but the almost irresponsible joyousness of the earlier work has yielded to something more stern and tense. Experiments in rhythmical patterning go further with greater subtlety and purpose, the brittleness of some of the syncopation gives way to something more rock-like and jagged, the lyricism is more pungent than wistful and, at times, more acrid than pungent. The pastoral has become urban, built over with bars and bordellos: for all its lightness of touch, a serious piece at heart, if far from being a dour one. A remarkable synthesis of popular and ‘formal’ elements, what gives the work its strength and durability is not the importing of vernacular idiom into highbrow respectability (pleasing though it is) but the high and sustained level of its continuous development and growth. What it borrows most creatively and potently from jazz is the ability to shift in a flash from one mood to its opposite without any stylistic inconsistency. At a more technical level it enables Lambert to harness the expressive force of tonal centres while not subjecting him to the tyrannies of the conventional key system.

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


Lambert: Piano Concerto & other works


Movement 1: Allegro molto marcato
Movement 2: Nocturne: Andante – Presto e leggiero – Andante – Presto
Movement 3: Finale: Lugubre – Presto

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