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Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012) Orchestral Works - Volume 2
Concerto for Stan Getz (for tenor saxophone, timpani & strings) (1990) [21:36]
Symphony No.2 in one movement (1967) [18:21]
Serenade for Small Orchestra (1976) [12:36]
Partita (1995) [16:26]
Howard McGill (tenor saxophone)
Scott Dickinson (viola)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 2017, City Halls, Glasgow CHANDOS CHSA5202 SACD [68:25]
Volume 2 of Chandos' new survey of Richard Rodney Bennett's orchestral works follows around six months on from the excellent volume 1. The good news is that the excellence of the earlier disc has been equalled if not exceeded. The disc follows the same format as the earlier one in presenting a range of Bennett's music and styles from concertante works to serious symphonic utterances and lighter fare too.
The longest single item, the Concerto for Stan Getz (concerto for tenor saxophone, timpani & strings), opens the disc. Given my predilection for this type of piece, for some unknown reason, I had not heard it before. But it is a tremendous work and receives a quite brilliant performance here. The genesis of the work is outlined in Richard Bratby's excellent liner note. Tenor Sax legend Stan Getz, towards the end of his life, lamented the fact that for all his fame within the jazz world no 'classical' composer had written a work for him in the manner of Stravinsky for Woody Herman or Copland for Benny Goodman. At a Los Angeles party the film composer John Williams suggested Bennett for that role. Bennett was so fired by the idea that he started working on ideas even before the commission was official, sending pages of score by fax to the now ailing Getz in Malibu. Bennett completed the score in November 1990, too late for Getz who died the following June. The work had to wait another year for its première at the 1992 BBC Proms played by John Harle. Harle has become the leading name associated with the work - there are two studio recordings from him soon after the work was written and just this month a third has popped up on the cover disc of the August BBC Music Magazine. Whatever the merits of those performances - which as I say I have not heard - I think it is important that other versions and interpretations are available and in the hands of John Wilson and particularly saxophonist Howard McGill this work gets the strongest advocacy.
Bratby alludes to Bennett's comment that the work was his first "cross-over" work. Cross-over too often signals instead of a powerful hybrid of genres, a weak fusion taking the musical gestures of one style and trying to fuse it to the forms of an another. Not here; it is important to remember that Bennett's early career was as a jazz player, arranger and composer. This is a man who knew and loved that genre from the inside and for all his creative life. The greater surprise is not that he wrote a "jazz" concerto but rather that it took him so long to write one. Perhaps that is why when the idea came along the flood gates of inspiration burst open. Part of the brilliance of the work is its relatively sparse instrumentation. By just using the orchestral strings plus a significant part for the timpani Bennett ensures that the focus is on the solo writing and the musical content rather than lush banks of symphonic jazz sound. McGill's playing is sensational, from punchily athletic to meltingly lyrical, and the tonal range is remarkable. In a little note at the end of the liner McGill dedicates his performance to British tenor sax player Vic Ash. Ash died in 2014 having been a stalwart of the British Jazz scene and bands such as the BBC Big Band as well as making over twenty tours backing Frank Sinatra. McGill plays this concerto on Ash's 1960's Selmer Mark VI instrument and was also a member of the same BBC Big Band back in 1990. This background gives McGill the ideal background to play this work with the understanding and empathy of a jazz musician but the rigour and discipline of a concert soloist - exactly the right kind of combined cross-over that the composer had too. Indeed there are points in the score where Bennett requires his soloist to improvise their part.
The concerto is in the traditional three movements; fast-slow-fast with opening Con fuoco urgently dramatic and the least overtly jazz-influenced movement, at least until the meltingly lyrical second subject, which is played with sensuous delicacy by McGill. Here, as throughout the disc, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are caught by the Chandos production team at the top of their considerable game. Conductor John Wilson's affinity with both Bennett and his music is well-known - the disc's cover art is a collage by Bennett given to Wilson as a house-warming gift. Wilson shares with McGill the innate ability to shift from contemporary classical to jazz style and back again. This is a characteristic of all three movements in this work and I can imagine it could sound less convincing in other hands. I read somewhere a rather sniffy comment about the central Elegy that in some way this was redolent of "Sinatra in a night club" or some-such dismissive comment. Of course that is to suggest that that is a derogatory comment - to my mind, given Sinatra's genius and the brilliance of the musicians and arrangers around him it would be a compliment. And so it proves here - what a gorgeously smoky, languorous and seductive movement this is. McGill's blue-eyed musings supported with Hollywood Studio richness by the Scottish strings - this must be such a great movement to play. The closing con brio is the work's shortest movement and returns to a dynamic urban landscape. Throughout the work Bennett makes brilliant use of the substantial timpani part to inject a rhythmic bite and pointed energy that the strings alone might struggle to achieve. All combine to bring the work to an energetic and exhilarating close - possibly this closing movement does not achieve quite the level of musical interest of the preceding two but this is a wholly enjoyable work performed with utterly compelling brilliance.
The next work on the disc is the Symphony No.2 in one movement. This was composed in the early years of Bennett's establishing himself as a young British composer of note. In its sub-nineteen minute span Bennett condenses a standard four movement form. At this time in the 60s Bennett was composing using serial techniques although the liner quotes him as saying around this time; "...the more I use serial technique, the less I am inhibited about making sounds which relate directly to tonality." The opening Allegro has an angular anger in its themes, unsettled and edgy. Again the Chandos recording is quite excellent at capturing the depth and richness of the writing as well as allowing the many contrapuntal lines to register clearly. The only other version I have heard is - I assume - a rather hissy off-air recording of Andre Previn with the LSO of what I imagine was the broadcast of the 1968 UK première. At that time, Previn and the LSO were pretty much the dream team and in fact the performance comes off very well, timing-wise close to this new disc; just 30 seconds or so quicker. But this is a work that needs the complex strands and textures to register clearly and by that measure the old recording cannot match the new. Bratby hears "Italian sunlight" in the score. I must admit that eludes me - this seems like a rather unsettled and questioning score. The second section Moderato is a case in point; chilled strings meandering across a bleak landscape with only occasional glints from percussion or winds to pierce the gloom. The scherzo section marked Vivace comes next marked sotto voce. It explores other facets of the nightscape of the preceding Moderato. By no means is this the high energy rhythmic feast that might be expected. The closing non troppo allegro is the shortest section of the work running to less than two and a half minutes. The angularity of the opening returns. With less than a minute to run the music hits an abrupt climactic musical buffer before a pensive recollection of the moderato and then a tersely abrupt dismissive gesture and the work ends. The confidence and the skill of Bennett's writing is never in doubt, whether or not this is particularly 'likeable' music I do not yet know. At the moment, my admiration for it outweighs my pleasure in listening to it. What is not in doubt is that this performance must surely be as persuasive as it is possible to be and I will be revisiting the piece often.
The disc is completed by a pair of works that might initially be termed 'lighter' than the symphony but prove to be ones where the craft and invention run deep. The Serenade for Small Orchestra was written as part of the 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II and was premièred by students of London's Royal College of Music. The format is again fast-slow-fast with a shimmering opening Aubade followed by a quite gorgeous Siesta. It is this kind of music that totally debunks the idea that 'light' equates in any way to 'less'. Completing the Morning, Noon & Night trilogy is a rather breezily rumbustious Nocturne complete with swaying strings and a latin-tinged accompaniment.
The disc closes with a work which appeared on another - early - BBC Music Magazine disc - the Partita. Although commissioned by British Telecom the work was written in memory of an old friend Sheila MacCrindle. Elsewhere Bennett's biographers have heard the work as a character-study of McCrindle, described by Bennett as; "the funniest person I've ever known". Here Bennett utilises a classical orchestra plus harp and the work is in an unrepentantly optimistic D major. Bennett's easy skill with melody and orchestration is evident throughout. If the 2nd Symphony needs repeated listenings to give up its secrets this Partita is instantly appealing. The central Lullaby featuring an extended viola solo played here with great skill and feeling by Scott Dickinson is in every sense the heart of the work and is very typical of Bennett where deep emotions are conveyed with unsentimental conviction. The closing Vivace e giocoso embodies Bennett's ability to write music with ear- catching melodies bound together with rhythmic energy.
All in all this is a very impressive addition to both this series of Bennett's orchestral music and Wilson's rapidly expanding discography. Collectors of Volume 1 are likely to have snapped up their copies already but for those seeking a good entry point into the rich and diverse musical world of Richard Rodney Bennett this might be the perfect disc. Superb playing, utterly convincing interpretations presented in typically excellent Chandos SACD sound make this an irresistible collection.