Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Five Negro Spirituals for cello and piano (1929)
Violin Sonatina (1925)
Pastoral Fantasy (1923)
Viola Sonata (1942)Three Violin Pieces (1921-5)
A Tune and Variations for Little People (1939)

Locrian Ensemble
rec Snape Maltings, 8-10 January 2001
DUTTON Epoch CDLX 7110 [76.48]

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It sometimes seems that the shade of Arthur Benjamin will have to struggle interminably between his two reputations: first as a purveyor of light music and secondly as an aspirant to express the great themes of life, love and death. His film music, Jamaican pieces, orchestral suites and concerto arrangements of antique composers (Cimarosa, Albinoni etc) represent the first strain. The second is associated with the Symphony, the viola sonata and the Ballade for strings. Both strands are represented on this disc.

Thanks be that the Spirituals neatly evade 'Nigger minstrelsy'. Benjamin clearly has respect for these songs which include I'm a trav'lin' to the grave, March on, Gwine to ride up in the chariot, I'll hear the trumpet sound (an extraordinary fantasy with black resonances) and Rise Mourners (not perhaps as inspired - an unadorned rendition).

Loraine McAslan in the Sonatina projects a febrile tone. The work reads across into the Ireland Second Sonata, Dunhill's Second and the First Sonatas of Howells and Rubbra. This version is not to be preferred to the differently coupled version on the Benjamin collection on Tall Poppies (TP134). I preferred the John Harding/Ian Munro version for its greater smoothness of flow and less strenuous violin tone. Sophia Rahman and McAslan make a much more macabre effect from the scherzo and the cantering caress of the Rondo is also extremely well done and magnificently recorded. Thank you Tony Faulkner and Michael Ponder (I had always hoped that Mr Ponder would go on to record the Bantock Viola Sonata but it was not to be).

The 1923 Pastoral Fantasy links most assuredly with Howells' Elegy for string quartet and string orchestra (a work written in memory of Francis Purcell Warren) and with the Piano Quartet. Howells and Benjamin were fast friends. This is more Ravel's String Quartet than anything else though the folk interlude at 2.35 track 10 does hint at other dimensions. Memories of friends lost in the killing fields of France toss and turn beneath the surface and their unruly restless images are poignant still.

The Viola Sonata is a wartime work and is distant from the relaxation of the Sonatina. The Elegy is almost dissonant The William Primrose recording (on Pearl) is not eclipsed by this nor is the very fine version broadcast in the early 1980s by Paul Neubauer. The Sonata is also known as the Viola Concerto and as the Elegy, Waltz and Toccata for viola and orchestra. In his notes Lewis Foreman places this sonata with those of Bax (and the first movement is very close to the Bax), York Bowen and Arthur Bliss. The piece demands orchestral treatment and I hope that we will not have to wait long for a first recording in this form. The central waltz is closer to Prokofiev. The Toccata's virtuosity serves as a reminder that Benjamin's 1938 Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola and orchestra has always made a hit when flighted by two great and like-minded soloists.

Three Violin Pieces: Lewis Foreman mentions Sybil Eaton as the dedicatee of the first piece (Arabesque). As he points out she pioneered the Stanford Sixth Irish Rhapsody. I would add that she also premiered the Finzi Violin Concerto, Howells' First Sonata and was a champion of Joseph Holbrooke's Grasshopper Concerto throughout the 1920s and into the very early 1930s. The first two pieces Arabesque and Carnavalesque are like refracted images of the violin solos from Sheherazade while the Humoresque is comparable to the Rondo of the Sonatina. The Little People pieces are as pleasant as you would expect.

Benjamin was a not inconsiderable teacher at the RCM. He numbered Hoddinott and Britten among his pupils. It is fitting that this recording was made at the Maltings and reminds me that one of Britten's Holiday Diary pieces was dedicated to his teacher.

Hearing this collection reminds me that I should just repeat my wish-list for Benjamin recordings:-

1. Lyrita Recorded Edition please release your version of Barry Wordsworth conducting the LPO in the Symphony. This was recorded just over a decade ago and has remained on the shelf ever since..

2. We need a single CD collection of the Concertos for viola and for violin coupled with the Romantic Fantasy for violin and viola and orchestra.

3 Would Chandos or Marco Polo consider a collection of the film music. Another Philip Lane project.

This is then, an affectionate and stunningly recorded collection even though, for personal reasons, I lean in favour of the Tall Poppies collection.

Rob Barnett

See also Arthur Benjamin

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