My Dancing Day - Choral Music by Richard Rodney Bennett
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
My dancing day (2008) [5:33]
Gloria, Gloria (2010) [3:28]
In the bleak midwinter (2010) [3:41]
New Year Carol (2009) [2:38]
Town and Country (2002) [7:04]
Serenades (2007) [13:47]
The Apple Tree (2009) [3:03]
Four poems of Thomas Campion (2007) [12:40]
A Good-Night (1999) [2:49]
George GERSHWIN arr. Bennett By Strauss [2:52]
Duke ELLINGTON and Irving MILLS arr. Bennett Sophisticated lady [3:51]
Cole PORTER arr. Bennett Every time we say goodbye [3:11]
BBC Singers/Paul Brough
rec. 19-20 January 2012, Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
English texts included
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 yourself.
John Quinn

This review was submitted before we learned of the deat of Richard Rodney Bennett on December 24th 2012
Attractive, expertly crafted choral music by Richard Rodney Bennett.