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Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2013)
Letters to Lindbergh (1982) [13.38]*
The Ballad of Sweet William (2003) [7.42]*
The Aviary (1966) [8.20]*
Dream-Songs (1986) [9.05]*
A Song at Evening (2009) [2.58]*
Four American Carols (2010) [8.45]*
Over the hills and far away (1991) [10.27]
NYCoS National Girls Choir/Christopher Bell*
Philip Moore and Andrew West (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 27-29 April 2012
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD 325 [60.56] 

This CD was prepared for issue before the death of the composer earlier this year - the booklet refers to him in the present tense - but it makes a fitting tribute to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. Despite his period of study in the 1950s with Boulez and Messiaen he also retained a foot in the fields of jazz and popular music. Even the earliest work on this disc, The Aviary written at the same time he was producing twelve-tone scores for the professional stage, has a distinctly melodic feel in music and was written for amateurs to perform - and to find pleasure in performing.
 
Indeed the vocal performances here are all given by an amateur choir of 67 singers aged between twelve and sixteen, and they sound as though they are enjoying themselves thoroughly. Given Bennett’s long-term residence in America during his later years, one might suspect that the NY is an abbreviation for ‘New York’ - but no, the initials stand for ‘National Youth Choir of Scotland National Girls Choir’. This tautologically named group don’t explain this title anywhere in the booklet, but otherwise the notes by Malcolm MacDonald are a mine of information about the works and include complete texts, although the excellent diction of the choir is such that they are not always needed.
 
Mind you, the texts for Letters to Lindbergh, which give their title to the CD, are well worth reading in their own right, delightfully flippant epistles from various sources addressed to the American aviator during his pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic. Captain Scott (of the Antarctic) worries about the whereabouts of his stray cat called Penguin, who has become convinced that he is a bird after reading an encyclopaedia article. The Titanic wants Lindbergh to collect a load of shopping in Paris to make its life on the seabed more comfortable. Pluto - the Disney dog, not the erstwhile planet - is simply worried about his relationships with ‘Mickey’ and ‘Uncle Walt’. Bennett sets all this delightful nonsense in a bluff straightforward style, not always mirroring the words in detail but giving the singers plenty of meat to get their young teeth into. The bouncy accompaniment for piano duet provides a jazzy counterpoint that has all the exuberance of Gershwin or Cole Porter.
 
By contrast the Ballad of Sweet William is a setting of an eerie Scottish ballad about ghostly apparitions. The tone of the music remains light-hearted nevertheless. The main influence here would appear to be Britten’s male voice Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, but Britten is more adept at ringing the musical changes to reflect the varied action of the text than Bennett is here. Some of the writing for the children’s voices indeed recalls Britten’s Spring Symphony.Once again the writing for piano duet - also mirroring the Britten Ballad of Little Musgrave - provides plenty of spice and incident.
 
The settings of Walter de la Mare’s Dream-Songs are for unison voices and piano solo. Although de la Mare was a popular poet with composers in the earlier part of the twentieth century and Herbert Howells and Cecil Armstrong Gibbs persistently returned to his work. This very popularity seems to have told against the writer is more recent times, and settings of his words are now comparatively rare. The poems in Dream-Songs are a gloomy and mysterious collection, with heavily symbolist overtones but Bennett seems to completely miss the point of the concluding Song of the Mad Prince with its egotistical refrain “That’s what I said” where the emphasis should surely be on the word “I” and not as here on “That”. Apart from that single quibble, these are beautiful settings - as is the other de la Mare poem here, the Song at Evening, which combines a number of bedtime nursery rhymes to marvellous effect. By the way the poet is misprinted as ‘Mere’ on p.14 of the booklet.
 
Bennett courts difficulties in his settings of Four American Carols, in particular seeking to find new melodies for such perennial favourites as I wonder as I wander and Away in a manger.His new tunes for these are nevertheless very personable, and the other two carols - which are spirituals rather than carols in the traditional sense - are highly enjoyable settings with plenty of jazzy swing. It is clear that Bennett found no difficulty in being approachable throughout his career - as indeed is proved by The Aviary, with its disparate settings of poets such as John Clare, Tennyson, Coleridge and Shelley. All this music is highly enjoyable to listen to.
 
To complete the CD we are offered a collection of popular children’s songs arranged for piano duet under the title Over the hills and far away. Here we are in Grainger territory, and the eight brief movements indeed recall the fresh-faced approach of the eccentric Australian. Only the setting of Upon Paul’s steeple brings a deeper note, with the ringing of the bells bringing us into the realm of Debussy’s sunken cathedral. The playing of Philip Moore and Andrew West is excellent throughout, although the booklet does not tell who is playing what in the works where only a single pianist is required.
 
I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this CD, which deserves to have every success not only with the families and friends of the choir. It is not deep music, but it has a freshness and lively response that is always a delight.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 

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