scoreI recently heard the pianist and composer David Owen Norris talking about Constant Lambert on Radio 3. “Of all the classical composers that loved jazz,” he said “Lambert was the one that best understood it”. I saw Owen Norris perform the Concerto at the English Music Festival in Dorchester last year – and even better, met up with him in the pub afterwards to talk about it. I think I know this piece better than any other – when I was at the University of Keele we took it on a short tour (in 1979 or 1980 I think) with Professor Peter Dickinson as the soloist. I was playing percussion. I remember a performance at Keele itself with Princess Margaret (then Chancellor at Keele) in the audience, and another at Jodrell Bank, the radio telescope.

It’s a fascinating work, clearly influenced by jazz and jazz improvisation (Lambert knew and admired Duke Ellington), but is still very much a composed concert work. It has rapidly shifting and unusual time signatures, strange combinations of chamber instruments, such as the long cello and woodwind “choir” passage at the start of the second movement, and a rich harmonic language that goes close to breaking tonality but doesn’t quite get there. The third movement gets the closest to a conventional piano blues theme. The scoring is a kind of hybrid between a jazz band and the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble. And the mood is savagely bleak. It was written not long after the suicide of Lambert’s close friend Peter Warlock, and there are several musical references to Warlock’s song cycle The Curlew.

At the performance last year Owen Norris had memorized the piece and relaxed into it, while the conductor (Ben Palmer, conducting the Orchestra of St Paul’s) gave it a slinky “swing” that never went over the top. The final evocative, unresolved piano chords were held long and died away into nothing, with the audience maintaining silence right until the end. It was one of the best performances I’ve heard. On the radio, Owen Norris concluded with this. “Anyone who is interested in taking elements of popular music to the concert hall needs to study Lambert, because Lambert was better at it than anybody else”.

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