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Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Orchestral Works Volume 1
Celebration (1984) [4:20]
Concerto for Marimba & Chamber Orchestra (1987-88) [16:19]
Symphony No.3 (1987) [21:24]
Summer Music (1982 arr. for orchestra 1984) [10:14]
Sinfonietta (1984) [9:17]
Colin Currie (marimba)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 2017, City Halls, Glasgow

This is the second time Chandos have released a Volume 1 of the orchestral works of Richard Rodney Bennett. The first series was another halted by the untimely death of Richard Hickox. With other similar series, Chandos have passed the baton quite literally to other conductors on their roster. Here, the decision has been made to restart it anew with John Wilson on the podium in his role as Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. This orchestra have been stalwarts of various labels in recent years - their relationship with Hyperion in particular has produced many fine discs but I cannot think of any other recordings on Chandos; if this is indeed their Chandos debut, it is an auspicious one. One curio before discussing the music; I wonder why Wilson’s agents did not tweak their ‘standard’ biography included here - glowing though it is - to reflect the particularly close relationship he had with Bennett. From memory, in the earlier part of Wilson’s career I seem to remember that he worked closely with Bennett in the role of music assistant/orchestrator - to the point where one of the pieces on Hickox's Vol.1- the Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune - was dedicated to him. Clearly, this suggests that Wilson has a particular insight and empathy with Bennett’s work which give his performances a special authority I would suggest.

None of the repertoire overlaps between the two Volume Ones. Indeed, on this new disc I only knew the Symphony No.3 from a previous commercial disc. However, alternative versions of the other works must exist on disc since only Summer Music is listed as a premiere recording. The other version of Symphony No.3 I know was on Koch, from James DePriest and the Monte-Carlo PO. That disc - which seems to be out of print and commanding rather high prices online - remains valuable for a recording of the Violin Concerto. However, the older performance of the Symphony is completely overshadowed by this new performance in every respect. Wilson’s interpretation is far subtler and nuanced, the orchestral playing likewise, and the recording infinitely superior. Indeed, throughout this new disc the Chandos SA-CD recording is very fine indeed. Bennett was justly renowned as brilliant orchestrator and so it proves here. But by brilliant, that should not be taken to mean excessive or overblown. Certainly, as demonstrated on this disc, with music from 1982 - 1991 Bennett applies orchestral colour with refined skill.

He is at his most overtly brilliant in Celebration, a four-and-a-half-minute ‘festival overture’ by any other name, which opens the disc. This brief work contains all of the Bennett fingerprints of vigorous music with a distinctly jazz-derived harmonic and rhythmic slant. If one was being harsh you might say this is the least individual work presented here but that is just to demonstrate the range of Bennett’s style from abstractly serious, to impressionistic and programmatic. It also shows his particular brilliance at being able to write hugely enjoyable occasional music - the liner quotes Bennett as saying; “I want to give players something which is a joy to play” - well it certainly sounds as though the performers here are having a ball! Broadly speaking the music on this disc splits into three ‘absolute’ works and two ‘occasional’ works. Celebration and Summer Music represent the latter with the concerto, symphony and Sinfonietta the former. By ‘absolute’ I mean works of pure music with no programme or narrative. These are serious works which repay repeated listenings. One thing I would say that is common to all three works is that Bennett does not write overtly emotional music. This is not to say it is not deeply felt but he does not choose to write in an explicitly emotional way. Neither does he exploit his natural gift for melody in these works - to a degree there is a sense of him avoiding the obvious or easily gratifying. In its place is a quite brilliant handling of the orchestral palette and a strong sense of texture and form.

This is very clear in the Concerto for Marimba and Chamber Orchestra which is placed second on the disc. Colin Currie is the excellent soloist here. The naturally mellow timbre of the marimba makes it a tricky instrument for an orchestra to accompany. Bennett is very skilful at keeping the orchestral textures transparent and light with plenty of ‘room’ in the middle of the writing to allow the marimba to be heard without relying on help from the balance engineer or the soloist in some way forcing the tone. There is a sense that this is more of a concertante work rather than an out-an-out concerto. Currie has opportunities to shine in a sequence of cadenzas across the work, but the most memorable passages are those where the marimba combines and overlays instrumental groups within the orchestra. The second movement (of two) is especially impressive - where Bennett’s natural penchant for jazz-inflected rhythms gives the music an irresistible energy. I also liked the dialogue between the solo instrument and the orchestral tuned percussion. A crisis is reached in a final overtly virtuosic cadenza before the music comes to a rather rapid and quite traditional full-stop. It is worth repeating how successfully both performers and engineers combine to make this a wholly convincing interpretation.

Bennett told his biographers “My Third Symphony is my favourite piece I ever wrote”. Most composers will tell you that their current piece is their favourite work so for someone to step back and make that statement after due consideration is quite something. In the liner Bennett is further quoted as saying: “My first two symphonies...are primarily extravert display pieces... the third symphony is a very different proposition. The orchestra is moderate. the music mostly thoughtful and lyrical, more or less monothematic and has a strong feeling of tonality”. Richard Bratby in his liner note expands on that to say, “the journey towards tonality is central to the symphony’s narrative... it never feels like anything other than a natural blossoming”. The particular strength of Wilson’s interpretation is this sense of unfurling and expansion across the work’s length. There is no sense of sectionalised passages or musical gear-changes, instead the music grows and expands from muted opening to ecstatic climax in a wholly convincing manner. The Symphony ‘only’ runs just over the twenty-one minute mark but it feels more substantial than that timing alone might suggest.

Bennett shows supreme skill in his economy of gesture and husbanding of his chamber orchestra resources. The three movements of the symphony form a balanced triptych with the central Allegretto the briefest and also the most mercurial. It is by no means a scherzo movement, but the flickering muted strings and light woodwind lines emphasise an intermezzo-like character, even allowing for the one major climax in the movement. Again, there is a sense that this is serious but not sombre music. The opening of the third movement epitomises this - really beautifully poised playing from the BBC Scottish woodwind before they hand over to the orchestral strings, who play a harmonically dense and angular melody. This in turn is passed to a horn melody with ghostly string harmonics echoing the tune - another masterly orchestral touch from Bennett. I really enjoyed the way the music slowly unwinds through the last three minutes of the Symphony, gradually becoming ever more serene and harmonically ‘clear’. As previously mentioned, Bennett does not write explicitly emotional music but he achieves here a sense of centred calm that is very beautiful and moving.

It is good programming to place the charming three movement Summer Music next. This is Bennett in more relaxed light music mode - and I do not use that term in any pejorative sense. The work was originally for flute and piano but this reworking for small orchestra is a delight. I do not know the original but the score seems wholly apt and attractive in this orchestral form. Again, the players of the BBC Scottish SO seem to delight in this very accessible score. The liner points it up as a tribute to Bennett's beloved French Impressionists. The fast-slow-fast format is as simple as it is effective, with the central Siesta allowing strings (and a lovely sensuous solo flute and oboe) to doze away in some sunny clime. This is Bennett at his most instantly appealing - gorgeous harmonies providing a seductive accompaniment to an out-and-out good tune. The closing Games is again in the best tradition of light music - all in all something of a winner and a piece that would grace any chamber orchestra’s repertoire.

So, too, would the closing Sinfonietta, another masterly display of compositional skill, with a standard four movement symphonic form compressed into a single continuous movement that lasts less than ten minutes. At no point does the listener feel ‘rushed’ by this degree of formal foreshortening. Credit for this must be shared by both composer and conductor - Wilson proving again to be highly adept at moulding the work convincingly into a brief but brilliant piece with no unwieldy transitions or clumsy progressions.

So all-in-all something of a triumphant start to a series of which further releases will be eagerly awaited. Aside from the quality of performing and engineering, I think the programming of the music across the disc is excellent too. Apart from showing the composer’s considerable range it makes for an enjoyable mini concert in its own right. I liked the combination of concerto, symphony and occasional works a lot - I hope it is a formula that can be replicated in the future. As listened to on my domestic sound system, in the past I have had some reservations with the Chandos engineering of the SA-CD layer. This current disc causes no such worries - the sound is from Chandos’ top drawer, with balances ideal both across the orchestra and when integrating the sound of the elusive marimba. At a stroke, this disc becomes the ideal entry point for those wishing to explore the sophisticated and fascinating orchestral music of Richard Rodney Bennett.

Nick Barnard
Previous review: Gary Higginson



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