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Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Overture to an Italian Comedy (1937) [6:21]
Cotillon, A Suite of Dance Tunes (1938) [12:12]
North American Square Dance Suite (1951) [13:48]
Symphony (1945) [44:22]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman (overture); London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite (Cotillon); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth (Dance Suite; Symphony)
rec. 1971, 1982. ADD/DDD
LYRITA SRCD.314 [76:50]


Talk about a Game of Two Halves! Many music-lovers will know Arthur Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba and they may also have heard some more of his lighter music. Broadly speaking, that’s the type of fare that’s on offer for the first thirty-two minutes or so of this CD – and nothing wrong with that when the music is so enjoyable. But when we get to Track 20 we encounter music of a very different type in the shape of Benjamin’s substantial and serious Symphony.

I’d only encountered one of these pieces before, the infectious Overture to an Italian Comedy. Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony recorded this as long ago as 1941. If the CD is still in print it’s on Biddulph WHL 016 and the disc is of huge interest as it also contains the first complete recording of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony and Heifetz in the Walton Violin Concerto, playing the original version of the score before Walton revised it. Stock’s reading of the Benjamin overture is a very good one but Fredman’s is even finer, having more bounce and vitality. This is music that wears a real smile from start to finish and Fredman’s breezy performance should win many new friends for the piece.

The two suites of dances are just as delightful. The title of Cotillon is incorrectly given on the jewel case, I think. In his excellent booklet notes Calum MacDonald refers to its subtitle as A Suite of English Dance Tunes and I think that must be correct since all the dances used by Benjamin are indeed English. There are nine dances in all and only one lasts for more than two minutes. The fourth dance, Love’s Triumph, the longest of the set, is really gracious. Of the sixth dance, The Charmer, I need only say the title is completely apt and Argyle makes a rumbustious conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable suite.

The recording of North American Square Dance Suite has been unpublished until now. Again there are nine short movements and this time the material is American and Canadian fiddle tunes. The longest piece is He piped so sweet [3:26], which here becomes a lovely pastoral idyll. Pigeon on the pier is a lively movement, which more than doffs a cap in the direction of Copland. The gently flowing Calder Fair features a lovely violin solo. The whole suite is most engaging and is performed with wit and sparkle by the LPO under Barry Wordsworth.

These same artists also give us Benjamin’s Symphony. I don’t know when the recording was made but as it hasn’t been issued until now it was pipped to the post, at least as a "first available recording", by a performance on the Marco Polo label. I haven’t heard that performance so this was my first encounter with the symphony and I was bowled over by it. It was composed while Benjamin was living and working in North America and it was first performed by Barbirolli and the Hallé at the 1948 Cheltenham Festival.

Much of the music is dark-hued and Benjamin’s orchestration is often weighted towards the bass end of the orchestra. There’s a telling use of percussion and the writing for brass consistently compels attention – the horn parts in particular become increasingly important and, I suspect, challenging to play as the symphony unfolds.

The first movement begins darkly with an angular theme for clarinet, which then passes to the oboe, all atop severe writing for the lower strings. The sonorities alone, to say nothing of the thematic material and harmonic language, tell us that this is music of purpose and substance. Time and again Benjamin’s scoring catches the ear. One example is his use of bass pedal points around 4:00. Even more telling is the section between 4:51 and 5:31 where writing for massed strings is punctuated by chords on hand-stopped horns, to which sometimes timpani rolls add menace. This is a passage of craggy grandeur and it’s arresting. That material is revisited towards the end of the movement but this time it’s much more fully scored.

The scherzo that follows begins in mysterious half-light. The music gradually picks up momentum and volume. As it does so it also acquires a degree of ferocity and menace. This is spiky, uncomfortable music and it provides a real test for the players – which the LPO passes with flying colours.

If the first movement was imposing then the slow movement is even more impressive. Marked Adagio Appassionato, it’s aptly described by Calum MacDonald as the "expressive core" of the symphony. Beginning with a long, angular string threnody this movement is serious stuff. The power of the music is both cumulative and sustained. For me it’s a deeply impressive stretch of musical thought that’s become even more impressive with each hearing. It’s indeed passionate – though darkly so – and the two soft major key string chords with which the movement concludes are almost a surprise after the turbulent writing that has gone before.

The finale gets off to an explosive start and then, at last, Benjamin gives us some extrovert, even ebullient, music. The movement is packed with energy and rhythmic drive. Around 6:00 there’s a passage of grandeur before a dash for the symphony’s emphatic finish.

After hearing this deeply felt, resourcefully scored symphony several times I’m left wondering, above all, why we haven’t heard much more of it over the years. When one thinks of some of the safe, repetitive programming in which concert halls, radio stations and record companies have taken refuge for so many years – to say nothing of some of the more pretentious contemporary offerings – the neglect of a strong, eloquent work such as this is not just a mystery, it’s a scandal. But then one could say the same of the symphonic works of Arnold and Rubbra to name but two other important British composers. I acknowledge that Benjamin was Australian but much of his career was based in Britain. Lyrita put us greatly in their debt by issuing recordings such as this.

Though the work was previously unknown to me and I have not had access to a score the performance of the symphony seems to me to be absolutely first class. The playing burns with conviction and the performance is captured in splendid sound. Barry Wordsworth conducts with complete belief in the music and gives it all the space it needs to make its proper rhetorical effect. His control of pacing and dynamics is most impressive and climaxes are thrust home with satisfying power. This is an intense performance of an intense symphony.

This is an absolutely superb issue and I count the symphony as a major discovery. This disc will certainly feature on my shortlist of recordings of the year.

John Quinn

See also review by Rob Barnett


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