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Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
Symphony No. 1 (1965) [21:29]
A History of the Thé Dansant for mezzo and small orchestra (2011) [9:25]
Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune for string orchestra (1999) [16:26]
Zodiac for orchestra (1975-76) [16:53]
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson
rec. 2018, City Halls, Glasgow, UK

While NMC, Continuum, Koch, Decca and Lyrita have collectively established the discography for Richard Rodney Bennett it is Chandos who have taken the ‘strain’. This is the third of their RRB discs and in this they have co-conspirators in the shape of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and John Wilson. Wilson is one of the highest and brightest stars in the British musical scene; I hope to hear him in a Salford MediaCity all-English concert in April including Bax’s Fand and Holst’s Perfect Fool. So often these RRB recordings have been given dry runs in the BBC Radio 3 Afternoon Concert ‘strand’. So it proves with this, as with other Chandos RRB discs (review, vol. 2, review). I wonder how many more volumes there are to be. I hope there are more to come. Chandos have visited this composer before and long before his death as a long-term New York resident in 2012. There is an invaluable recording of RRB’s opera Mines of Sulphur and a disc in the Film Music series.

Bennett was, as they say, a musician of many parts. I have a tape of a 1977 cabaret he gave with Marian Montgomery at the Snape Maltings, he championed the Constant Lambert piano concerto for EMI and he wrote music for film and small screen (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Murder on the Orient Express, Gormenghast). His music for concert hall could be tough but when he added voices he was often magically seductive. In the tough category comes the pithily compact three-movement First Symphony from the mid-1960s. This is not its first recording. It was quite an accolade that it first appeared on a mixed-composer RCA LP (SB6730) at that time and within a few years of having been written. Its brawling upstart outer movements are contrasted with a hypnotic bleached-out central Poco Lento. Look for straight-speaking melodies in vain but revel in the work’s rhythmic and transparent textural clarity. Chandos and Wilson bring these strengths out as never before.

The short three-song cycle that is A History of the Thé Dansant began life in 1994 as an original version for mezzo-soprano and piano. Again, clarity is the order of the day and an adept’s balance between voice and orchestra. The songs to words by M.R. Peacocke on occasions have their Britten-like moments but they have more vulnerability. They possess a nostalgic sway and a capacity to touch. The transparency of the orchestral writing vies with Ravel but, that aside, they also make a good match of Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs and that’s not only because the valedictory song is a Tango: chandeliers, potted palms and verandas open to the warmth of long gone nights.

Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune for string orchestra is a work dedicated to John Wilson. Its Prelude, four Variations and Finale has its Vaughan Williamsy moments but they are by no means all ‘Tallis’ pointers; Dives and Lazarus and the Concerto Grosso also put in appearances. The style (and for the Thé Dansant songs) bears the impact of thirty-plus years elapsed from the very different rigours of the mid-1960s. The style is lyrical and reaches out to the listener. The affinity is with RVW, Howells, Geoffrey Bush, Blyton, Warlock (who is referenced by name in homage in the third variation) and Bliss. While keeping its amour propre this is a work that fits well into the English string pastoral/spiritual chapel. It ends with a deft and gentle gesture, inching into silence.
Zodiac for large orchestra was written in 1976 with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington. It’s a shortish work and its components are even shorter: there are five ritornelli and four season-titled groups of zodiac signs - three for each of the four seasons. The music is resplendently orchestrated with RRB’s trademark pellucid quality. That said, Zodiac has a severity of expression that befits the work’s dedicatee. The dedication is to Elisabeth Lutyens “on her 70th birthday, with love and admiration”. Bennett’s fluttering, delicate, steely, playful, mercurial music would work well alongside Lutyens’ four pieces called Music for Orchestra (now there’s a recording project); but a few degrees warmer than Lutyens.

There are good notes by Richard Bratby and these are in English, German and French and the words sung by Sarah Connolly are also printed at the back of the insert booklet.

Rob Barnett

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