Double play

Record review; Lambert: Piano Concerto; Piano Sonata; Eight Poems of Li-Po; Mr Bear Squash-you-all-flat Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (Hyperion CDA 66754)

Constant Lambert's strange, exotic, distracted music came hurtling out of the roaring Twenties pursued by demons. Or at least one demon - his darker self. And in the Piano Concerto of 1931, it finally caught up with him. A chill wind blows through the hothouse of the opening movement. Lambert's jazzy piano syncopations have grown more obsessive en route from The Rio Grande, mordent woodwinds are pitched low and blue, a solo cello voices the heartache (if ever you doubted Lambert's ingenuity and resource, just listen to what he can do here with just nine players). And most disturbing of all, the big, surging theme which rolls off the keyboard in the opening pages, affording us an open road and excellent prospects, turns out to be on a hiding to nothing. It reappears later, dispirited, wracked with ennui.

This is an amazing and scarifying piece - I'll go further - masterpiece: the spirit of the jazz age turned in on itself. Jazz was Lambert's undoing in the strictest sense of the word: for him, it was the musical embodiment of release, escape, surprise. The Piano Sonata (1929) - a walk, or prowl, on the wild side - is that contradiction in terms: a jazz sonata. The jolly japes of The Rio Grande have hardened into an urban, streetwise muscularity. This music is always on the move. Repose is a soulful blues.

It's a world away from the fragrance and crystalline concision of the Eight Poems of Li-Po, further yet from the vaguely subversive kiddies' piece Mr Bear Squash-you-all-flat, whose wicked pay-off is just what the little brats ordered. Mad King George himself, Nigel Hawthorne, takes great delight in that narrative. Philip Langridge luxuriates in the songs. Ian Brown is right inside the piano writing. What an original this Lambert was. If you don't already know The Rio Grande, that's a priority, that's your starting-point. But make haste to this collection. It's a cracker.


Until now, I've often wondered whether Constant Lambert the composer was quite as interesting as Constant Lambert the man - ideal material for a Ken Russell bio-pic, one would have thought (if that isn't a fate worse than Lambert's actual premature death). But this disc has changed all that. The Piano Concerto, with the Nash's Ian Brown as soloist, echoes other jazz converts - Stravinsky, Martinu, Walton - but it has a flavour all of its own: jazzy, romantic and wittily subversive at first, with a bitter taste in the second and third movements (the finale's marking "lugubrious" doesn't tell anything like the whole story). The invention is scintillating, even when the mood is deepest blue - and what a wealth of colour Lambert creates with an "orchestra" of just nine players!

Along with this comes the earlier Piano Sonata - written, we are told, because Lambert felt the need "to catch up on a bit of depravity". The two faces of Lambert - the heroic pleasure-seeker and the fragile introvert - are here, too, though perhaps less sharply focused. Mr Bear Squash-you- all-flat is pure nursery-nonsense, with a strong Stravinskian folk-flavouring; narrator Nigel Hawthorne gives the slender story all he's got, which is plenty.

By contrast, Eight Poems of Li-Po is all wistful beauty, with delicate touches of chinoiserie - how many other British composers writing in the 1920s could match it for subtlety of evocation and expression? Philip Langridge's singing is wonderfully persuasive, and the recording serves the mood to perfection, as it does in all four pieces. Those with in-built defences against early 20th-century English music may still find these works get under the wire; those who don't suffer from what Bayan Northcote calls "our national self-contempt" should simply prepare to be enriched.


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