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Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Orchestral Works - Volume 4
Troubadour Music (2006) [4:24]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1968) [24:20]
Aubade (1964) [9:03]
Country Dances, Book 1 (10:45) [10:45]
Anniversaries (1982) [16:59]
Michael McHale (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 2019, City Halls, Glasgow, UK

This is the fourth volume in Chandos’s highly successful series of the orchestral works of Richard Rodney Bennett, but the first I have come across. I think it would make a very good introduction for newcomers to Bennett’s work, though they might be taken aback by the wide variety of style and substance to be found in these five works. At first hearing, many listeners might even be surprised to learn that the earliest and latest of the five were by the same composer.

What is not in doubt is the commitment of all concerned, and the standard of the performances under John Wilson, a conductor who seems to be everywhere just now, and in particular wherever there are new avenues to explore and less familiar music of quality to be revealed. The playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is superb, as is the recorded sound. The excellent insert note by Richard Bratby deals with the works in chronological order of composition, something I always appreciate, and combines just the right amount of background information and description.

Aubade was commissioned for performance at the 1964 Proms, allowing Bennett to compose a piece in memory of the conductor John Hollingsworth, who had died tragically young the previous year. An aubade is a morning song, and Richard Bratby neatly points out that Bennett’s piece is also a mourning song. It sounds like a piece of rich, post-romanticism, with opulent orchestration and musical material that, whilst not harshly dissonant, is freely atonal in nature. The composer who most comes to mind is Berg. The music is sombre but not lugubrious. Your reaction may or may not be in line with Bratby’s evocation of ‘arching melodic lines’.

The Piano Concerto is barely any more key-centred than is Aubade, but the Bergian atmosphere is largely absent, as witness the delicate textures at the outset. This first movement is lyrical in nature, with melodic writing that is more immediately accessible than in the earlier work. A lively scherzo then precedes a reflective, rather tender slow movement. The finale is fast, spiky and provides an exciting bravura close. The work was composed for and first performed by Stephen Kovacevich – or Stephen Bishop as he was then known. The solo part sounds fiendishly challenging! I wouldn’t want to say that Michael McHale makes it all sound easy – that would hardly be the aim, in any case – but he throws it off with fiery aplomb. This is a thoroughly enjoyable listen, perhaps the ideal entry point for those new to Bennett’s music.

Anniversaries did double duty as a response to a commission to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the BBC and the sixtieth birthday of Bennett’s friend, the American composer Bud Bazelon. There are several lyrical passages in a work that none the less gives the overall impression of great exuberance, appropriately enough. In eleven sections and further sub-sections, it is a multi-coloured essay in orchestral writing. (Bennett’s skill in writing for orchestra comes out throughout this programme.) Certain passages employ particular sections of the orchestra, and there are many beguiling sounds throughout the work. The composer writes that all the thematic material derives from a three-note motif heard at the outset, one which, so he says, ‘has a strong tonal character’. The three notes could, indeed, be used in a tonal way, but I don’t think many listeners would think of Anniversaries as a tonal work, any more than they might pick up, had they not read the booklet note, the blink-and-you-miss-it reference to ‘Happy Birthday to You’ at the end.

As you might expect, the brilliance of the orchestra’s playing is particularly in evidence in Anniversaries, and no less so in a much lighter work, Country Dances. The English Dancing Master was an anthology of traditional tunes designed to be danced to, first published by John Playford in 1651. This set of five pieces – presented as Book 1 – might be thought of as arrangements, but they are rather more than that. The tunes are presented straight in highly imaginative orchestral guise, with the addition of introductions, linking passages and other episodes. The notes tell us that the composer ‘reframes each dance in his own mature musical language’. Maybe so, but he does so very gently: the music is resolutely tonal and immediately enjoyable, a dazzlingly inventive rethinking of old tunes.

Troubadour Music, the latest work to be composed but the curtain-raiser here, is also based on an older source, a 13th-century troubadour song, ‘Volez vous que je vous chant’. This is a freer adaptation of the original and is, once again, vividly orchestrated. There are many passages where the writing will remind listeners that Bennett produced not only the rich symphonic catalogue of which this collection is a part, but also an important series of magnificent film scores.

William Hedley
Previous review: Marc Rochester

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