This is, I believe, the second disc devoted to the choral music
of Richard Rodney Bennett. Reviewing
the earlier release, an excellent recital by John Rutter and
The Cambridge Singers, Christopher Thomas lamented that not
much of Bennett’s large and wide-ranging output had been recorded.
That was in 2005 and so far as I’m aware not a great deal has
changed since then. That makes this new release from Paul Brough
and the BBC Singers all the more welcome. Another admirable
feature of this disc is that collectors who already own the
Rutter disc can invest in this one sure in the knowledge that
there is only one piece, A Good-Night, that is duplicated.
Indeed, most of the pieces on this Signum release were composed
after Rutter made his recordings in 2004.
The present compilation confirms the impression I got from the
earlier disc, namely that Bennett is a composer who writes splendidly
for a cappella choir. He is discerning in his choice
of texts. The music itself is sophisticated, accessible and
seems beautifully conceived for voices. His textures are often
rich but the music is always clear. Without exception the music
that Paul Brough has chosen is full of interest.
There are five Christmas pieces on the programme – Rutter includes
another seven – and all are most appealing. Bennett’s setting
of My dancing day is by no means overshadowed by Holst’s
superb response to the same text. Nor is his gently intense
version of In the bleak midwinter put in the
shade either by Harold Darke or, still less, by Holst’s much
more mundane tune. The Apple Tree has the same words
that Elizabeth Poston set as Jesus Christ, the
Apple Tree. It’s not Miss Poston’s fault that her setting
has been done to death over the years; perhaps some enterprising
choirs might care to think twice before singing it and give
Bennett’s lovely setting an airing instead. You might expect
that a piece entitled Gloria, Gloria would
be extrovert and joyful but the reality is that Bennett’s piece
is a bit more thoughtful and varied than that, though it does
contain some celebratory moments.
Moving away from Christmas, Town and Country is a work
in two movements, the most substantial of which is a setting
of words by Charles Morris (1745-1838), from which the work
takes its title. The subject matter is unusual and I enjoyed
the Morris setting in particular – the other has words by Wordsworth
– on account of the extrovert, good-natured music and the expert
writing for voices.
Serenades comprises five poems by John Skelton (1460-1529).
Of these I admired particularly the gently lyrical ‘Mistress
Margery’, which is for female voices only, and the beautiful,
sophisticated ‘My Darling Dear’. Four poems of Thomas Campion
is described by Malcolm MacDonald, in his first-rate notes,
as “akin to a tiny vocal symphony or sonata”. I admired greatly
the second piece – the slow movement, as it were – which is
an outstanding setting of ‘Never Weather-beaten Saile’, a poem
that was also set memorably by Parry as one of his Songs
of Farewell. That’s followed by ‘Fire, fire!’, an exciting
movement which could be thought of as the scherzo. The music
is exciting but I enjoyed the performance of it rather less
for reasons I’ll come to in a moment. The set concludes with
a lyrically expressive movement, ‘The Hours of Sleepy Night’,
which is another very fine composition.
Bennett’s taste and musical range has always been extensive
and he has long been associated with cabaret so it’s fitting
that the programme ends with three of his arrangements of songs
by Gershwin, Ellington and Porter. These are all expertly crafted,
sophisticated and constitute genuine homages to the originals;
they are, in short, classy. The arrangement of Sophisticated
lady is particularly elegant, however I feel that the BBC
Singers rather overpower By Strauss.
That brings me to the reservation at which I hinted when discussing
the Campion settings. The singing on this disc is technically
superb. The BBC Singers give virtuoso performances and in most
respects it’s hard to imagine Bennett’s music being better served.
Except ... To my ears this ensemble has a vibrato-heavy sound
which has been a feature of their singing for years. This is
particularly noticeable when the group is singing loudly; at
such times the sound can be overwhelming and even rather fierce
– the aforementioned ‘Fire, fire!’ is but one of many examples.
Just to test the point I played a bit of the Bennett disc by
The Cambridge Singers. What a difference! John Rutter’s choir
produces a much cleaner, lighter sound which is much more pleasing
– indeed, to be frank, less wearing – to listen to. It’s interesting
to note that Rutter’s choir is pretty much identical in size
(10/6/6/6) to the BBC Singers (8/6/6/6). So we’re not comparing
a large choir with a smaller one; it’s a question of singing
style. However, this is a matter of personal taste and other
listeners may not be troubled by it. It’s important to state
that the performances are utterly assured and proficient.
In his notes Malcolm MacDonald uses a wonderful phrase in talking
about the music that Richard Rodney Bennett has composed over
the last couple of decades. He suggests that “his works seem
very much like fruitful new plots added to the soil already
so richly filled by Parry, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Warlock,
Britten, Harris and others.” That’s a splendidly apposite remark.
If you like English choral music then you should buy this stimulating
disc and experience some of Bennett’s “fruitful new plots” for
This review was submitted before we learned of the death of
Richard Rodney Bennett on December 24th 2012
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