Robert Simpson once wrote that “versatility in an artist can be a curse”, and one can see why on contemplating the career of Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012), a comprehensively gifted musician, arguably the most talented of all British twentieth-century composers, as well as becoming, later in his life, an exhibited artist. Not that Bennett himself felt cursed – for him, his manifold gifts were purely natural – but a creative musician capable of excelling in more than one discipline does tend to pay a price in the public eye in terms of being taken seriously – or did, fifty-odd years ago, the more so when their work varies – as Bennett’s did - from pop hits to Symphonies, jazz, film music and grand opera.
Not all listeners were experienced enough in their listening – less so in today’s educational compartmentalisation, in which we see public-school educated individuals on University Challenge unashamedly unable to tell the difference between Vivaldi and Wagner – to be able to appreciate fully such a wide range of music as Bennett delivered, with the result that his facility was often categorised as superficiality.
It needs a series of recordings, such as these Chandos releases look like turning out to be, to give us just one part of Bennett’s considerable output, through which we may study at our own pace the results of his work, and I for one have learned much from the first two volumes, of which this second further encapsulates the range and depth of Bennett’s still under-appreciated achievement.
Above all, perhaps, his music needs a conductor such as John Wilson, a complete master of a wide variety of music, for the results are excellent.
Of the four works here, the Concerto and Symphony are (as we might guess) the most significant in concept and artistic achievement. Concerto for Stan Getz (1990, the composer’s second Saxophone Concerto – the first was for alto sax) is set alongside the Second Symphony, the latter dating from 1967 and scandalously neglected (like others of Bennett’s symphonic works) since.
Bennett’s Second Symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 125th-Anniversary season (1967-68). The premiere, the first of five consecutive performances within a week, was conducted by Leonard Bernstein, but the work did not greatly impress the New Yorkers. For those five concerts, each prefaced Bennett’s Symphony with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem (and Brahms’s B-flat Piano Concerto with André Watts concluded). Nor was the British premiere (by the LSO under André Previn) much understood, the audience bemused by Bennett’s intensely-argued, emotionally understated score, which brilliantly absorbs elements of serial procedures cheek-by-jowl with a strongly implied tonal base.
In addition, Bennett’s invention here should be required study by all fledgling composers: what the composer extracts (i.e., grows) from those opening four notes is astonishing – as, at one level, virtually a composition class is laid before us. Bennett stated the Symphony is in three continuous sections, but Chandos’s booklet oddly divides it into four, music which flows so naturally that we witness a genuine living organism in flight.
Bennett’s Second Symphony is an extraordinarily original and deeply impressive work of art: one needs a recording to get to know this masterpiece thoroughly. It does not invite the listener into its world, but I have found it so compelling that I have returned to it again and again over several weeks. Wilson’s account is superior in terms of structural cohesion to either Bernstein’s (who was two minutes longer than Wilson: Bennett timed the work at “about twenty minutes”) or Previn’s, and the BBC Scottish is more than the equal of either the New York Philharmonic or the LSO of fifty years ago.
The Concerto for Stan Getz requires different listening ears, as Judge Judy might say. This is most certainly not one of those lightweight scores (nothing wrong with them) which nod in the direction of what used to be popularly known as ‘jazz’ – such as Ibert’s excellent Concertino da Camera. Bennett remarkably fused the deeper expressive elements of late-twentieth-century jazz music (in a sense, its inherent intimacy) within a tripartite ‘classical’ structure without a great deal of instrumental colouration, strings and timpani. In some ways, it is the drummer who unifies soloist and orchestra, and with the former using the lower-pitched tenor the inherently serious nature of the music becomes predominant.
The fascination of this score, and the nature of its expression, suggests it may well be one of Bennett’s most significant compositions. It receives from Howard McGill a performance of consummate musicianship, and it is good that Gordon Rigby’s virtuoso timpani-playing is acknowledged; the BBCSSO strings are in the highest class: all-in-all, this is a great performance.
The two shorter works are what used to be termed ‘occasional’ pieces, and each in their different way reveals further aspects of Bennett’s comprehensive mastery. The Serenade was written in 1977 to mark the Silver Jubilee of The Queen, and was first performed by the orchestra of the Royal College of Music. It comes across as brilliant, effective and colourful, with a nod in the direction of William Walton (his seventy-fifth-year) in the Finale, where, towards the rhythmically-dominated ending, the older composer’s Johannesburg Festival Overture is recalled.
It is brilliantly played, as is the not wholly dissimilar Partita (in structure), which was written almost twenty years later and dedicated to the memory of the unforgettable Sheila MacCrindle, promotions guru of Chester Music, whose infectious sense of humour in all situations was legendary, personified in various turns of phrase within this fine piece.
Such was Bennett’s complete mastery of his craft that the numerous subtleties within each of his scores can easily tend to be overlooked: his is music to return to often, when – I am sure – further and deeper characteristics, of unification and expression, will surely be revealed. This Chandos series will surely be one of the most significant in British music for quite a few years.