Here is the third volume in Chandos’s series of Richard Rodney Bennett’s orchestral music, which fully maintains the high standards set by its predecessors. It covers a forty-six-year period, beginning with the First Symphony (1965). Older music-lovers may recall the wide-ranging expectation the announcement of its existence caused at the time – surely, not since Walton’s First was a British Symphony awaited with such anticipation as was Bennett’s. He was the fashionable personification of modern British ‘serious’ music, a wide-ranging musician already known for brilliant operas, film-scores, chamber, vocal and orchestral works, besides being a fine jazz pianist and a more than passable lyric tenor of the Sinatra range to intimate audiences.
Such a plethora of gifts in one man inevitably produced in certain quarters some pretty strong reactions, and it may be that certain of Bennett’s later works betray a fluency that was not matched by a commensurate depth of feeling, but musicians of this standard do not come often, and at his best Bennett’s music has still not achieved the acceptance by all that it demonstrably merits. Latter-day music-lovers, apart from those who recall Bennett personally with affection and admiration, will thank Chandos and especially John Wilson for this on-going series of recordings.
The performances here enshrined are consistent in quality, understanding and commitment. Chandos could not have chosen a conductor more in-tune with Bennett’s wide-ranging qualities than Wilson – himself the dedicatee of Reflections on a Sixteenth-Century Tune. This masterly composition for string orchestra may be the best introduction to Bennett’s world for the enquiring music-lover. It is, in its own way, a masterpiece, a fine work in the long line of British music for strings. It is not as profound as the Tallis Fantasia, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro or Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, but is fully the equal of Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, and at times plumbs somewhat greater depths than that brilliant youthful masterwork (Bennett, 1936-2012, was sixty-three when Reflections was written). The performance is magnificent: the playing of the BBC Scottish is of the highest possible standard, and the recorded sound is glorious.
In complete contrast, the (less than) ten minutes A History of the Thé Dansant – three songs for mezzo and small orchestra – show Bennett in equally commanding lighter vein. Originally for voice and piano, to words by the composer’s sister-poet (what a gifted family!), the songs more than demonstrate a strain of the lighter aspects of life without quite being a vocal equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing, for the ‘tea-dance’ recalled here is somewhat more genteel although it never descends into musical parody. Sarah Connolly relishes the many sympathetic opportunities Bennett gives, and Wilson’s partnership, stylistically, is to the manor born.
Zodiac, dedicated to Elisabeth Lutyens on her seventieth-birthday, is a set of what one might term short variation-studies on each of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, grouped into the four seasons, each group joined to its predecessor and successor by five opening and closing ritornellos – so, although the work is made up of seventeen continuous sections, it flows effortlessly from one to the other without necessarily descending into a game of ‘spot the star-sign’. The result is a semi-serious piece of diverting music, occasionally causing us to discard our easy-going listening stance to ponder deeper emotional expression, a fascinating work that exerts a lasting fascination and is beautifully realised here.
The disc begins with Bennett’s First Symphony. So much was hyped before the premiere in 1965 by the LSO under István Kertész that many in the packed Royal Festival Hall audience (of which I was member) appeared nonplussed at the result. A latter-day Walton 1 this is not: its three movements are over in twenty-two minutes (half the length of the four-movement Walton) and the work’s musical language is very much of the mid-60s: Henze (his Fifth Symphony, especially) may be a close reference. This was not the ‘crowd-pleaser’ many expected, but as with Bennett’s two later Symphonies, its depth does not reveal itself at once.
This is clearly young man’s music, which may at first suggest a hiding of emotional content beneath a veneer of fashion, and whilst it is true this work breathes the 1960s as sure as does A Hard Day’s Night, further listening discloses more of a Sergeant Pepper-ish seriousness, the organic nature of the juxtapositions eventually reveal true living organisms, the composer – and here, perhaps, is the heart of Bennett’s creativity – never for one moment wearing his emotional musicianship on his sleeve, yet it is there, nonetheless, beneath the occasionally clinical linear creativity.
It is well-worth seeking out, for the rewards are invariably positive and worthwhile. After more than sixty years of admiring this wholly exceptional musician (sometimes enviously), I welcome unreservedly the success and achievement of this eminent project. Chandos’s presentation is fully worthy of the musical achievement, the booklet cover reproducing a collage by Bennett himself, and the superb booklet notes by Richard Bratby are a model of what knowledgeable and informative accompanying texts should be.