"You know, I love him more each time," Stanford remarked of the "unteachable" Ivor Gurney as he threw him out again. Mark Bebbington has recorded all Gurney's nine known piano Preludes, produced in a creative spate in 1919-20 during a period that yielded hundreds of songs and continued even beyond autumn 1922, when Gurney was banged up in Dartford Asylum. One of the Preludes and two freshly uncovered Gurney pieces figured in Bebbington's inventive recital at Huntingdon Hall, a gloriously revamped chapel.
Was it The Sea (1908), a refined early piano piece, that Stanford saw in one of those lessons? Or Sehnsucht - one of this recital's two most astonishing revelations: a four-minute piece that reaches far beyond Schumann to confirm what Bebbington calls Gurney's Innigkeit - that German quality of "inwardness", matched by his "acute sense of harmonic direction".
It would be hard to imagine better performances than Bebbington's of these. Phenomenally proficient, he proved his mettle in the recital's first half with his vital, crisp handling of six Debussy Preludes. Krystian Zimerman, with Uchida the doyen of Debussy interpreters, would have patted him on the back for such spot-on-the-mark readings of La Cathédrale engloutie or Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest - like the teenage Debussy venting his 1870s anger on a conservatoire piano. On the last snarl Bebbington leapt back as if the piano bit him: it probably did.
Bebbington has plans to schedule Debussy and Ravel (Miroirs) with Gurney again. Likewise, with the evening's other revelation: from his early years as Bernard Rose's pupil in Oxford or studying composition with Petrassi in Rome, Leighton (1929-88) showed a genius-like ability to assimilate influence. His two Sonatinas op.1 and Sonata no 1 op.2 (1946-8) reveal a staggering imagination: they positively sparkle. In Bebbington's hands the second Sonatina (op.1b) completely overcame the twangy quality of Huntingdon Hall's piano to beam like a beacon. Wonderful piece, wonderful composer.
There were two duds: César Franck's potentially magnificent Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, composed in 1884, requires a Reubke-esque build-up to compensate for a relative lack of chromatic intensity. Uneven and rhythmically rocky, it didn't get it. And Gurney's wonderful D-flat Prelude - one of his best - proved ropey too. A rethink needed here - of pacing and emotional tug alike.
Mark Bebbington plays Ferguson, Bridge and Gurney at the Lighthouse, Poole, on 28 AprilReuse content