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Richard RODNEY BENNETT (b. 1936)
Sea Change – The Choral Music of Richard Rodney Bennett

Sea Change (1983) (17:05)
A Farewell to Arms (2001) (11:47)
A Good-Night (1999) (2:36)
Verses (1964) (6:31)
Missa Brevis (1990) (15:40)
Five Carols (1967) (10:04)
Lullay mine liking (1984) (3:37)
What sweeter music (1968) (3:38)
Puer nobis (1980) (2:26)
The Cambridge Singers/John Rutter
Sue Dorey (cello)
rec. LSO St. Luke’s, London, August 2004 DDD
COLLEGIUM RECORDS CSACD 901 [74:28]

 

Ask even an educated classical music enthusiast what Richard Rodney Bennett is best known for and the answer is likely to be his music for film. It is certainly true that film music has made Bennett a virtual household name - how many millions of people have seen his name roll past at the beginning of Four Weddings and a Funeral? Yet the diversity of his output over a fifty year period has encompassed virtually every genre including jazz, for which he has become particularly well known years accompanying such artists as Marion Montgomery at the piano.

It is a shocking truth then, that so little of Bennett’s "serious" music for the concert hall has made it onto disc. A quick search on Amazon for instance reveals one disc in the EMI British Composers series (reviewed by myself back in 2002) and an import on Koch featuring amongst four works in total, Summer Music and Winter Music, in performances by the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra. The EMI disc includes a valuable chance to hear the Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1968; valuable in that it is one of only a small number of recordings that demonstrate an earlier incarnation of Bennett’s compositional personality. There is also the fine Concerto for Stan Getz although the fillers (somewhat predictably) are a suite of incidental music from "Four Weddings" and the Waltz, fine though it is, from Murder on the Orient Express. More recently Chandos have released an excellent disc in their film music series that includes Bennett’s music for Far From the Madding Crowd. [review]

With so little music from outside the cinema available, this particular disc is therefore most welcome and serves as a fine demonstration of Bennett’s consummate gifts.

The choral music spans a good part of Bennett’s career, the earliest example here being the popular Five Carols of 1967 with the most recent, A Farewell to Arms, dating from 2001. Sea Change, the work from which the disc takes its title opens proceedings and serves as a particularly good introduction to the music surveyed. Setting Shakespeare in the outer two movements with Andrew Marvell and Edmund Spenser in the centre, Bennett creates an immediately compelling sense of atmosphere. The tolling of tubular bell that commences The isle is full of noises, returns at the close of the opening song, with the austere beauty of the writing akin to Judith Bingham, another British composer with a gift for choral music. Other parallels are also evident. Frank Martin’s settings from The Tempest come immediately to mind; try the entry of the choir after the solo introduction to the second song, The Bermudas, at 0:43. In Full fathom five, which Bennett places last, Vaughan Williams’s Three Shakespeare Songs may be thought of as the precedent. The exception here is the setting of Edmund Spenser, in which Bennett creates an extraordinary nightmarish vision, employing a kind of "sprechgesang" technique completely at odds with its neighbouring settings yet startlingly effective.

A Farewell to Arms utilises a clever juxtaposition of two poems, movingly realised in writing of telling eloquence. The words of Ralph Knevet and George Peele tell of the instruments of war and the reminiscences of the old retired soldier respectively. Bennett binds the two with a lyrical commentary on solo cello, a stroke of genius and here played beautifully by Sue Dorey. (Gerald Finzi coupled these two poems in his own Farewell to Arms; a setting for tenor and orchestra. Ed.)

A Good-Night and Verses are shorter, the former a gorgeous little part-song setting Francis Quarles and written as a contribution to "A Garland for Linda" in memory of Linda McCartney, a personal friend of the composer. In comparison Verses is a relatively early work, a setting of John Donne, written in 1964 when the composer was twenty eight. It is another notable example of the natural ease with which Bennett responds to his chosen texts.

Speaking of the Missa Brevis, John Rutter questions why Bennett has not been asked for more liturgical music. It is indeed surprising that this is his only liturgical work, for the composer’s natural language is particularly well suited to the medium. The gentle strains of the Kyrie place the music, as Rutter aptly points out, closer to France and in particular Poulenc, than anything else although Britten and even Lennox Berkeley occasionally come to mind.

The Christmas music is grouped together at the end of the disc, commencing with the ever delightful Five Carols, probably Bennett’s best known choral work thanks to its popularity with amateur choirs. The carols set texts ranging from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries and in the case of There is no rose, for instance, will be familiar from settings by other composers. Out of your sleep and the joyous Susanni with which the cycle closes are particular pleasures. The fifteenth century text of Lullay mine liking continues the middle ages theme and like What sweeter music, was written for former Prime Minister Edward Heath and his Broadstairs Choir, Broadstairs just happening to be the composer’s home town. The brief but touching Puer Nobis, which concludes the disc, brings proceedings to an unashamedly nostalgic close.

There can be few finer advocates of Bennett’s music than John Rutter whose own choral credentials do of course precede him. Without exception Rutter and his Cambridge Singers respond to Bennett’s music with sensitivity and eloquence whilst Rutter also provides the lucid and informative booklet notes. Credit also to Collegium Records, firstly for their enterprise in releasing this worthy collection of music and secondly for the quality of the packaging which is both eye-catching and practical. Add to this a beautifully balanced, atmospheric recording and the result is a fine disc in every way.

Christopher Thomas



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