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Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Sea-change (1983) [17.05]1
A farewell to arms (2001) [11.47]2
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]3
What sweeter music (1968) [3.38]
Puer nobis (1980) [2.26]
Cambridge Singers with Elin Manahan Thomas3 (soprano), Clare Wilkinson3 (mezzo-soprano), Simon Wall1 and Ben Breakwell3 (tenors), Sam Evans13 (baritone), Sue Dorey2 (cello), Charles Fullbrook1 (tubular bells), cond. John Rutter
Rec. St Luke’s Church, London, August 2004
COLLEGIUM CSCD 521 [74.28]

This release makes a delightful companion to the disc of Richard Rodney Bennett’s choral music from Signum which I reviewed earlier this year. Unlike that release, this disc is reissued (see review of original release) specifically in memory of the composer’s death; what is marvellous is that it duplicates none of the works on that disc, and thereby doubles the representation of Bennett’s choral music in the current catalogues. And like that Signum release, this reissue comes with full notes, texts and translations where required.
The most remarkable work here is Sea-change, written for the Donald Hunt Singers. The opening and closing movements inhabit the same world as the Vaughan Williams Three Shakespeare Songs, even setting some of the same texts (with the addition of an atmospheric tubular bell); but The waves come rolling (setting lines from Spenser’s The Faerie Queen)is something quite different, a depiction of a sea storm set almost entirely in choral Sprechstimme. It sounds horrendously difficult to perform, but the Cambridge Singers under John Rutter make it all seem natural and easy, and the results are stunningly effective. One’s only criticism of this performance might be that the contributions of the solo voices in The Bermudas are rather recessed in a resonant acoustic, with the result that the words are unclear - even though full texts are given in the booklet.
As evidenced in the last of the songs in Sea-change, Sir Richard was never afraid to challenge settings of texts by the most illustrious of his predecessors, and in A farewell to arms he set exactly the same combination of two poems (by Ralph Knevet and George Peele) that Gerald Finzi had tackled over forty years earlier. But whereas Finzi wrote his settings for solo voice and string orchestra, Bennett here employs a full chorus accompanied by a solo cello; and the results are very different indeed, even where the choral writing has distinct echoes of Finzi’s gently bruising harmonies. There is no other recording available of this work, and Sue Dorey brings to the cello solo all the passion and involvement that is required.
A good-night is one of the songs contributed to Sir Paul McCartney’s A garland for Linda commissioned in memory of his first wife, and is familiar from the recording by the Joyful Company of Singers of the complete collection (review). That first recording is disgracefully no longer available, however, and Rutter and his group are just as effective in their delivery of this delightful miniature. The words by Francis Quarles (1592-1644) - although sometimes attributed to Charles I - have been set many times by other composers from Purcell onwards. Bennett’s treatment sounds new-minted and fresh, a real challenge to my own favourite setting of the same words for male choir by the otherwise totally unknown Ieuan Rees-Davies.
Verses is the earliest work on this disc, written when Bennett was still regarded as part of the British modernist school. The response to Donne’s words is sensitive and delicate, with no hint of the more ‘serious’ music that the composer was writing at the same time. An alternative recording by the choir of Magdalen College Oxford is currently available only as part of a four-disc set of English anthems, so this individual release is self-recommending.
Bennett wrote only one piece of music for liturgical performance, and his setting of the Missa brevis perhaps explains why. Although his response to texts remains as lively as ever, one gets the feeling that the Latin words did not inspire the same degree of involvement as the English poets that he set. The results are quite adequate, but lack the final element of individuality that is found so often in his other works. Only in the final Agnus Dei is there found a real sense of rapture, despite the superb singing of the choir throughout.
The Five carols are also early works like Verses written during Bennett’s ‘twelve-tone’ period, but they are immediately approachable pieces which have been frequently performed over the years. Oddly enough there is only one other recording of the complete set, by Stephen Layton’s Polyphony, but this comes as part of a carol collection and again it is valuable here to have them as part of a conspectus of Bennett’s choral music. Once again Bennett challenges earlier settings - three of these texts were treated by Britten in his Ceremony of carols - and comes out triumphantly from the comparison. The setting of Sweet was the song is particularly beautiful.
The pieces Lullay mine liking and What sweeter music were both composed for the Broadstairs Choir conducted by Edward Heath - yes, the same man who was also Prime Minister of the UK from 1970 to 1974. Whatever may have been his shortcomings as a politician, he was a consummate musician who took every opportunity to promote classical music and composers - would that current politicians showed the same sympathy. One can forgive almost anything for these commissions, both of which are absolutely beautiful. Lullay mine liking comes into competition with the unchallengeable setting by Holst, but Bennett is nearly as good and the superb solo singing, recessed within the resonant church, here has the right sense of distance. The setting of What sweeter music is more elaborate, but the poem by Herrick is treated with sensitivity.
The final track is a setting of the poem Puer nobis by Alice Meynell (1847-1922) and not a liturgical setting as might be imagined from the title. It forms a beautifully subdued envoi to this disc.
This is an essential album for all those who love the work of Richard Rodney Bennett, and should be heard by others too. The singing is as impeccable as one might expect, even when lamenting the lack of clarity of diction. The presentation is superlative, and as a record of Bennett’s works for a cappella chorus this is a worthy memorial to his art.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

See review of original release by Christopher Thomas