Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Orchestral Works Volume 3
Symphony No. 1 (1965) [21:29]
A History of the Thé Dansant for mezzo-soprano 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
English text included
CHANDOS CHSA5230 SACD [64:34]
With the third volume of Chandos’s invaluable series, we reach Bennett’s first symphony. The second symphony is in volume 2 (review review review) and the third – perhaps Bennett’s finest work and certainly his own favourite – is in volume 1 (review review). This may seem the wrong round, and collectors of the series need to remember it, as the spines of the discs, in accordance with Chandos custom, give only the volume numbers and do not list the works on each disc.
Bennett wrote this first symphony when at the height of his reputation. His opera The Mines of Sulphur (available on Chandos CHSA5036) had had a successful premiere, and during the composition of the symphony he met and fell in love with Dan Klein, to whom the second movement is dedicated. The work is in three short movements, the outer faster ones lively and light on their feet, and the middle one passionate. You can hear that Bennett was somewhat influenced by continental modernism, for example in the leaping and somewhat angular Schoenbergian violin lines, the Bergian passages for muted brass in close harmony, and a general debt to Stravinsky’s kind of rhythmic restlessness, but Bennett is his own man and the symphony is attractive and coherent. I hesitate to note that it is in fact serial, lest that put some people off, but you would not guess it.
A History of the Thé Dansant, much the latest work in all of the three discs, is a short song cycle to words by Bennett’s sister, whom he refers to as Meg but who writes professionally as M. R. Peacocke. It has an interesting background: their parents were artistic and Bohemian but emotionally cold, though one day Meg found a photograph of them shortly after their marriage, looking happy. From this came the three poems her brother set, charming, apparently light but with an undertone of melancholy. Two are foxtrots and the third a tango, and they all capture, perfectly to my ears, the atmosphere of dance music of the period between the wars. I was also reminded of some of Britten’s early settings of W. H. Auden, which of course come from the same period, and also of Ravel’s ventures into composed jazz.
Reflections on a sixteenth century tune is a work for string orchestra, taking its place in the succession of such works by English composers, such as Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, all of which are referenced at points during this work. The theme, however, is not English but from a chanson, En l’ombre d’ung buissonet, by Josquin des Prés. The theme is followed by four variations and a finale, varied in character and with the central slow one a Homage to Peter Warlock, a composer whom Bennett said he had a passion for. This work was dedicated to John Wilson, who worked with Bennett on his score for BBC television’s Gormenghast, and who said they were like a family.
Zodiac is an orchestral showpiece in seventeen very short movements – each only about a minute long. It is based on the signs of the Zodiac, grouped into four seasonal groups, and with a ritornello before, after and between each group. Each zodiacal sign features a different instrumental combination, such as horns and low brass for Leo, woodwinds and percussion for Scorpio and trumpets and drums for Aquarius. The work as a whole is a kind of concerto for orchestra, though I was also reminded of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide, because of the clarity with which the different instrumental groups are presented. Bennett dedicated the work to Elisabeth Lutyens, but I cannot imagine anything more different from her stern and dry music than this brilliant and engaging score.
John Wilson is thoroughly identified with this lively and attractive music and the BBC Scottish SO also sound as if they enjoy playing it. Sarah Connolly seemed to me to catch the tone of the songs admirably. The recording, which I listened to in two-track stereo, is clean and clear and not too resonant. The sleeve notes, in three languages, are very helpful though the works are not discussed in the order in which they appear on the disc. The text of the poems is given in English only.
None of these performances is listed as a first recording, though you would have to search to find Zodiac and the first symphony in different versions. But there is no need: these are all very satisfactory performances. Though there are no more symphonies, I hope that there are enough concert works left to continue this very worthwhile series.
Previous review: Rob Barnett