A BAD NIGHT IN LOS ANGELES (SOMMCD 0662) ****
The title draws you in immediately, but even before you get to the disc there is the fascinating insert-booklet, with notes by the composer of this kaleidoscope of piano music, Robert Matthew-Walker, himself. There are references to some of the friendships he has made during his long life (such illustrious names), and two photographs which cannot help but invite juxtaposition.
The first is of a glittering gathering celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s 53rd birthday party, with Pierre Boulez alongside Bernstein himself, a miserable-looking Daniel Barenboim and his then wife Jacqueline du Pre. Just behind her is a hirsute, moustachioed hippy – RMW! Turn a couple of pages and you see a very recent photograph of Simon Callow chatting to Matthew-Walker. How he could do with those locks of yesteryear!
And so we move to the actual music on this well-filled disc, all dating from Matthew-Walker’s retirement from important positions in the recording industry, and all performed with insight and advocacy by Mark Bebbington.
Nocturne and Aubade, both for the left hand alone, create deliciously hazy timbres, judiciously pedalled (though I did detect an extraneous noise, both here and elsewhere). There follow the Three American Pictures, very much New World, with jazzy breakdance rhythms, at times crisply Stravinskyan, and spectacularly riff-structured in the eponymous Bad Night in Los Angeles (the insert-notes explain the context).
A more patrician America is evoked in the noble Evening of Memory, inspired by thoughts of General Douglas MacArthur, and delivered by Bebbington with hands so well-balanced.
Battledore, five tiny pieces composed as a challenge to a friend’s young daughter, has an attractive quirkiness, as well as a searching exercise in fugal playing, followed by something entirely different, the lengthy and emotionally rich Fantasy-Sonata: “Hamlet”. This has a Lisztian, Faustian intensity, with probing textures which haunt the memory, and Mark Bebbington gives a powerful account of this deeply-felt work.
Bebbington is joined by Rebecca Omordia for the fun party-piece Mozart Divertimento for piano duet. Though the opening of Mozart’s F major Piano Sonata K533 is the cornerstone, Matthew-Walker throws many nuggets from other styles at us, and the piece is an utter delight.
Things become more serious for the final two tracks. Fantasy on a Theme from Malcolm Arnold is not in fact based on an actual melody penned by that beloved composer, but on the musical letters derived from his name: ACAD, and that striking subject is the source of atmospheric musings creating their own lyrical momentum. Like many of the other works on this release, the sectional nature of the material makes it difficult at times to sense when the music is ending; not a problem when one can witness the soloist’s body-language in live performance.
We conclude with Matthew-Walker’s tribute to a dear colleague of so many of us, the composer-pianist John McCabe. Their joint love of Grieg is encapsulated in the textures of The Fields are White Already, sombre, contemplative, and with hints of the Debussy who was so influenced by the Norwegian composer.
This release is a wonderful exemplar of Robert Matthew-Walker’s catholic musical tastes, and the generosity of spirit exuded by the soul of this musical polymath.