Here is an enticing - and attractive - pair of discs, marking Mark Bebbington's debut with the Resonus label. The back inserts announce this is the start of a new French music series.
Mark Bebbington made a series of interesting discs for Somm Classics during the past decade, of solo music and concertos. I have the concerto discs (comprised largely of 20th-Century British composers) and found them to be quite excellent, with innovative repertoire and involving performances - the exception being the Vaughan-Williams Concerto, which simply was not well-played. A single disc of Mozart Concertos (#11, 12 & 13) also was not very good (due in large part to his partnering conductor), and fortunately no more Mozart was undertaken.
Bebbington now turns to French repertoire. And his Poulenc enterprise starts promisingly.
Beginning with the first disc, recorded in 2020, this is overall rather relaxed, smiling music-making, aided by lovely, atmospheric recorded sound and sweet orchestral strings. The opening Concerto is cheerful, if perhaps a bit underpowered compared to the best. All through, Bebbington goes for atmosphere first and foremost, sometimes at the expense of crowd-pleasing vitality. But his characterization of the many moods provides much variety and this is quite enjoyable in a pleasant way.
I actually enjoyed the Concert Champetre more, even though it is played here on piano rather than harpsichord. It springs to life with a touch more dynamic power than heard in the Concerto. And while I still prefer the original version, I can't begrudge him playing it on piano, as Poulenc himself sometimes did. And with excellent conducting from Jan Latham-Koenig, it works surprisingly well.
Bebbington is joined by a splendid oboist, John Roberts, for the Oboe Sonata and bassoonist Jonathan Davies in the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano. These are certainly the chamber music highlights to be heard on either disc.
Unfortunately, the second disc is much less successful. Immediately in Aubade, we hear a significant decline in recorded sound quality. Even though the Royal Philharmonic is utilized for both discs, a glance in the booklet reveals that Disc 1 was recorded in St John's Smith Square, while Disc 2 was in Cadogan Hall. That alone likely accounts for the difference. The chamber music sounds fine, but Aubade (a concerto in all but name) sounds stuffy and rather 2-dimensional compared to the open, airy, 3-dimensional spaciousness of the acoustic heard on the first disc. I was also alarmed to hear rather mediocre piano playing, especially in the opening section. Is he sight-reading this?
I'm not a fan of solo vocal music, so I'll skip over the Bal Masque for baritone. Why a vocal piece was chosen for this collection over all the other instrumental chamber music Poulenc penned is inconceivable to me. (And the booklet doesn't even bother to include a printed translation of the sung text.) But whatever.
The Flute Sonata is nicely done, with radiant, vibrant tone from flutist Emer McDonough. It is a lighthearted (and lightweight) reading; but no matter, I can listen to her flute sound all day long.
The closing Sextet is a let-down for sure. It is rather bland and curiously uninvolving. With slowish tempos, it sounds careful and under-rehearsed.
In sum, these discs are enjoyable but not particularly memorable. When one returns to the magnificent complete survey from Eric Le Sage on RCA (reissued on a SONY budget box set), or the excellent 3-disc summary of chamber works on Brilliant Classics, or the splendid single-disc selection from Ensemble Arabesques on FARAO Classics, one encounters a much more extrovert, involving, and most certainly rewarding music experience. The piano playing is superior across the board as well. Not that Bebbington is inferior; far from it. He just lacks a certain flare and commanding presence in this music. And in the second disc, more rehearsal time was surely in order. Still, the excellent recorded sound and pleasing French atmosphere created on Disc 1 are enjoyable, as is the beautiful flute playing on Disc 2.