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Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Symphony No. 1 (1965) [21.29]
A History of the Thé Dansant (1994, orch. 2011) [9.25]
Reflections on a sixteenth century tune (1999) [16.26]
Zodiac (1976) [16.53]
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 2018 at City Halls, Glasgow

This CD is announced by Chandos as the third in an ongoing series comprising the orchestral music of the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett – and given the sheer size of the composer’s output over a long life, it is clearly going to be a massive undertaking. Not that Bennett’s music has ever lacked for recordings, at any rate of his major output. Chandos themselves have contributed to this with a CD of some of his television and film scores included in Rumon Gamba’s series of British film music some ten years ago, as well as a complete recording of his opera The Mines of Sulphur, taken from a live series of American performances with high dramatic qualities if with rather erratic singing. But there remains a considerable body of works which are otherwise unrepresented on disc. And it is good that these will now become available over the forthcoming years even if inevitably their quality may prove to be diverse.

The First Symphony, which constitutes the major work on this CD, has already been recorded once before, indeed a matter of a few years following its initial performances, as part of series of LPs of British music made by RCA Victor in sessions with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (can we imagine an international company undertaking this sort of experiment nowadays?). Bennett enthusiasts will of course already have this earlier recording, which has at various stages emerged onto CD, and will have to be resigned that in the course of collecting otherwise unobtainable scores included in the new Chandos edition, they will inevitably reduplicate some works they already know well. The gap of some fifty years between two recordings of a work is not conspicuously short; the contrast between the performances and styles will nevertheless be found illuminating. The old RCA recording was of high quality in its day. The playing of the RPO, especially in the string department, was a touch above the standard of that period where violin players in particular were unaccustomed to the challenges presented to them by modern music (not so much a matter of proficiency as of sheer familiarity with the style). It is an indication of how far we have come and in particular, of how far string playing has improved over the last half-century. So much so that the players of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra here are fully the rivals of their internationally acclaimed predecessors in 1968. They also have the advantage of being taken through the music by John Wilson, a conductor who established his reputation initially in the field of musicals and popular light music of the 1940s and 1950s. He has a natural feeling for the idiom which indeed reflects Bennett’s own interest in jazz and early twentieth century popular music, as well as their long-standing friendship during the composer’s lifetime.

From his initial reputation as a Wunderkind and indeed something of an enfant terrible, Bennett has long been regarded as a composer who settled down into a generally conservative style; or it may be rather that his style remained relatively static while others of his contemporaries charged enthusiastically towards the Gadarene cliff of more modern avant garde techniques. Like his contemporary Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Bennett was to a certain extent saved from plunging over the cliff by his affection for more popular idioms, which enabled him to avoid the over-earnestness that entangled many of his generation. He also may have been saved by his capacity for writing tunes, unfashionable in its day but now rapidly assuming more importance. This was illustrated at an early stage by the commercial success of his waltz, written for the film Murder on the Orient Express that established itself over the years as a classic of light music, and has been reflected in subsequent film and television commissions for magnificent scores, such as Far from the madding crowd, the beautiful Lady Caroline Lamb, and perhaps most extraordinary of all his music for the television adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s eldritch fantasy Gormenghast.
I do not propose here to go into detail about the structural organisation of the First Symphony – this is fully covered in the well-written booklet notes by Richard Bratby – or indeed to indulge in a point-by-point comparison of the new recording with the old one. A gap of fifty years is a long time and styles of interpretation change even more than styles of playing. The main critical interest in this release is of course the new works, which to my knowledge have never been recorded before, at least in their orchestral scoring. Foremost among these must be the Reflections on a sixteenth century tune, a set of variations for string orchestra on a chanson by Josquin des Près, written for John Wilson and following a creative block that afflicted the composer for four years after 1995. It is an extraordinary piece, hearkening back to the works of the English pastoralists of the early twentieth century. The very beautiful third variation is described as a “homage to Peter Warlock” although its contrasts between solo string quartet and lyrical melodic writing bear equal testimony to the music of Vaughan Williams, Howells, Bridge, Finzi and others of that school. Even the quicker variations with their occasional jazz-like flickers fall into the same meditative pattern and the concluding pages have a haunting quality that would surely appeal to audiences who love Dives and Lazarus or the Tallis Fantasia. It has been previously recorded in a version for wind band but this appears to be its first recording in its original form.
Similarly evocative of a bygone era is the brief song cycle A History of the Thé Dansant, a setting of poems by the composer’s sister, recalling their mother’s reminiscences of holidays on the French Riviera in the 1920s; at once nostalgic and sardonic. The words sometimes jostle uncomfortably with the delicately insistent dance rhythms of the foxtrot and the tango but the second song has a deliciously sleazy atmosphere and the final tango is suddenly interrupted by a wistful final verse where the memories are steeped in a sense of regret and longing, emphasising deeper emotions that earlier have only been hinted at. Dame Sarah Connolly sings with creamy beauty and a touch of relish when required. She has previously recorded the cycle with piano accompaniment but this version with orchestra is new.

I am rather less impressed with Zodiac, a set of seventeen vignettes describing the twelve star signs interspersed with five orchestral ritornellos whose material serve to bind the whole together. The basic idea, a set of miniature tone-poems each scored for a different combination of instruments, perhaps owes more to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide than to Holst’s Planets. The real problem is that the individual movements are too short to establish much character in their own right. Some of the snippets – Leo, Scorpio, Capricorn – have a clearly illustrative purpose but in others the link between the relevant star sign and its musical illustration appears to be decidedly arbitrary. The closing ritornello, which finally reunites the sections of the orchestra into a whole (echoes of Britten again), seems somewhat perfunctory. The work was commissioned to celebrate the American bicentennial in 1976 but although it is good fun, it hardly seems suitable to that purpose either. It appears to never have been recorded before in any form, despite a prestigious first performance under the baton of Antal Dorati.

Bennett’s music seems to have been staging something of a comeback in recent years – around the time of his death I reviewed with great enthusiasm a recording of his choral music, which included his delightfully witty Letters to Lindbergh. I very much hope this Chandos series will contribute to the increased reputation of a composer who nowadays seems to stand in some need of further promotion. The Reflections on a sixteenth century tune is a real discovery that should surely be snapped up by Classic FM audiences.

Chandos’s recording is full and rich – one might have welcomed even more weight in the string tone of the Reflections but the refined sound is most acceptable – and the booklet comes with notes in English, German and French, as well as the texts of the song cycle. This is certainly well worth exploring, and not just for fans of the composer.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Stephen Barber

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