Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Orchestral Works - Volume 2
Concerto for Stan Getz, for tenor saxophone, timpani and strings (1990) [21.36)
Symphony No. 2 - in one movement (1967) [18.21]
Serenade, for small orchestra (1976) [12.36]
Partita, for orchestra (1995) [16:26]
Howard McGill (tenor saxophone), Gordon Rigby (timpani), Scott Dickinson (viola)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 2017 City Halls, Glasgow
CHANDOS CHSA5212 SACD [69.25]
Richard Rodney BENNETT
The Glory and the Dream
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer
Nicholas Morris (organ)
rec. 2017 St. Alban the Martyr, Birmingham, UK
Sung texts included
SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD0184 [62.43]
Two very different albums of the music of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett have recently arrived for review. The second volume in the Chandos series of Orchestral Works is joined by a release of choral music titled ‘The Glory and the Dream’, on Somm Céleste.
Not long after developing an interest in classical music, I rather kept Bennett’s music at arm’s length, probably after reading he had been a student of Pierre Boulez in Paris and associated with European serialists at Darmstadt summer schools. Of course, my fears and assumptions were not strictly correct, as Bennett was a versatile composer who wrote his later works in a broader style. Around the late 1970s or early 1980s, I attended a concert at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester that included a performance of Bennett’s Piano Concerto, but I can’t now recall the name of the soloist. Another work I admire is Bennett’s Oscar-nominated soundtrack to Sidney Lumet’s film Murder on the Orient Express (1974). There is little else I know about Bennett’s music and in 2012 his death in New York aged 76 seemed to pass me by.
In 2017 Chandos, a label renowned for reviving “neglected musical gems”, launched a new series of recordings of the orchestral works by the prolific Bennett, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under its associate guest conductor John Wilson (review). This second volume in the series contains four accessible and colourful orchestral works written over a near thirty-year period from 1967, when Bennett was in his early thirties. For me, the standout work by some distance is the Concerto for Stan Getz, for tenor saxophone, timpani and strings. Written in 1990 in response to a request by Stan Getz, the American jazz saxophonist, Bennett referred to the score as a “crossover work.” Sadly, Getz died before he could première it. Here, tenor saxophone soloist Howard McGill is in mightily impressive form throughout, especially expressive in the glorious central movement Elegy, the heart of the work – sultry night music with a bluesy atmosphere. An excellent performance, too, from timpanist Gordon Rigby. Bennett wrote his Symphony No. 2 in 1967, a commission by the New York Philharmonic to mark its 125th anniversary and premièred the following year by Leonard Bernstein. Cast in a single movement, its four main sections have been given separate tracks here. Overall, I find this a reasonably accessible work with a distinct defensive quality that seems to portray various types of human conflict. Marked Moderato, the impressive second section contains some subdued, slightly bleak writing for muted strings that creates an eerie, rather mysterious atmosphere.
A commission to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, Bennett’s Serenade for small orchestra was premièred that year at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Upbeat and full of orchestral colour, this 3-movement score is tailormade for student orchestras with a challenging level of difficulty that doesn’t leave them feeling patronised. Of special note is the heart-warming and engaging central movement, Siesta while the Finale: Nocturne, marked molto vivace, is buoyant and percussive, with a distinct Latin feel, evoking to me the sound world of Leonard Bernstein and Malcom Arnold. Written in 1995, the Partita for orchestra came about following a commission by BT Plc, in conjunction with the Association of British Orchestras, for a series of concerts by 17 different orchestras. Bennett dedicated the score to the memory of his dear friend the music publisher Sheila MacCrindle, who died in 1993. It has been suggested that the work is a “character study” of MacCrindle. A Mozart-sized orchestra without heavy brass is required for this 3-movement score containing an abundance of melody. Titled Entrada, the opening movement is bright and buoyant as if portraying an enjoyable sea voyage through squally waters. A prominent part for viola in the soothing central movement Lullaby is sensitively played by the principal Scott Dickinson. In the Finale, the sparkling Coplandesque rhythms that infuse the writing are highly appealing.
On this eminently recommendable release, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under John Wilson is clearly very much at home with Bennett’s music. These are strikingly expressive performances with a substantial level of refinement and engagement. Again, I must single out talented tenor saxophonist Howard McGill for his superb playing of Concerto for Stan Getz, a work that deserves to be programmed far more often in concert. It was recorded at 2017 in City Halls, Glasgow, and the sound engineers have done a splendid job in providing clarity and presence with a satisfying balance from a reasonably warm acoustic. Richard Bratby has contributed the interesting and informative essay in the booklet.
Bennett’s music is also celebrated by the Somm label on its Céleste series, with a new album devoted to his choral works titled ‘The Glory and the Dream’. Clearly a fertile area for Bennett’s talents, around 51 years separate the earliest piece in this collection of 15 settings from the last, which was written in 2012, the year of the composer’s death. Apart from the 4-part work The Glory and the Dream with organ accompaniment, all the other items are for unaccompanied chorus and described as first recordings. Every work in the collection is enjoyable, but particularly striking is the carol Remember, O thou man, a setting of a Christmas text by Ben Jonson. In this affecting work, the challenging high tessitura of the writing is superbly realised by the choir. In addition, the carol Lullaby Baby, a Thomas Ravenscroft setting, is another exceptional rendering, reminding me of’Bethlehem Down by Peter Warlock, a composer who also set this same text. As I have come to expect, Paul Spicer has prepared his Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir near flawlessly. The unity and appealing tone of the voices is beyond reproach. However, as with previous releases I have heard from this young choir, the weight of the women’s voices does for my taste tend to slightly dominate of that of the men. The sound quality from St. Alban the Martyr, Highgate is pleasing, being clear with good presence. British music specialist Jeremy Dibble has provided a first-class essay and I can report that the English texts are provided in the booklet too.
Richard Rodney Bennett’s music is well served by both these new releases, with a remarkable performance of Concerto for Stan Getz making a particularly strong case for the Chandos album.
The Glory and the Dream - Contents
1. I wonder as I wander
2. Lullaby Baby
3. The Sorrows of Mary
4. I. Still to be neat
5. II. The hour-glass
6. Remember, O thou man
The Glory and the Dream:
7. I. Con anima
8. II. Andante lento
9. III. Con moto appassionato
10. IV. Vivo e leggiero
11. This Day
12. A Contemplation Upon Flowers
13. Madrigal ‘And can the physician’
15. One Equal Music