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Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Overture to an Italian Comedy (1937) [6:21]
Cotillon, A Suite of Dance Tunes (1938) [12:12]
North American Square Dance Suite (1951) [13:48]
Symphony (1945) [44:22]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman (overture); London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite (Cotillon); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth (Dance Suite; Symphony)
rec. 1971, 1982. ADD/DDD
LYRITA SRCD.314 [76:50]



It’s good to see that this Benjamin selection traverses the gorge from light to dark. The first three works are in fact lighter fare but the Symphony is hewn from different rock altogether.
 
First though we meet the pre-War Overture to an Italian Comedy. A cocksure tarantella fizzing with flair and similarly orchestrated. Cotillon, A Suite of Dance Tunes comes from the following year and takes tunes used in the 1719 Dancing Master, furnishing them with great warmth and lithe embellishment. Noteworthy in this performance is the tremendous string warmth in Daphne’s Delight and the natty percussion writing in Marlborough’s Victory. So too is the beautiful string layering of Love’s Triumph which is a ravishingly vital example of Benjamin’s control of, and eloquence in, expressive romantic tunes. Jigg it a foot has sinuous charm and there’s a classical refinement and chaste warmth in Nymph Divine. These are a cut above the run-of-the-mill visitations by some British composers to the world of the antiquaries. Perceptive and ear catching particularity is what does the trick.
 
The North American Square Dance Suite is a considerably later work, dating from 1951. These are not so successful because there’s less Benjamin here than in Cotillon. One feels he’s meeting the dances more than halfway over the “wrong side” and the result is often delightful but seldom if ever personal. That said the bluff-relaxed reel (Miller’s Reel) has a lot going for it and he does unleash some Lat-Am percussion in The Old Punk and there’s some rambunctious chasing going on in Pigeon on the Pier – though Zez Confrey fans needn’t get too excited, this isn’t a Kitten on the Keys salute.
 
The meat of the programme however is the 1945 Symphony, an imposing three quarters of an hour, four-movement work of very considerable stature. It was dedicated to Vaughan Williams, who was himself an influence on Benjamin every bit as much as Sibelius. One doesn’t want to overdo these DNA traces in Benjamin’s symphony, otherwise we can reduce it, not unlike Moeran’s, in a reductive spirit. It has powerful strengths of its own, portentous, dark and glowering in the opening movement, with sardonic percussive tattoos as well. The VW string choir leavening serves as brief respite – back come powerful brass calls and martial percussion, increasingly brutal. There’s no real let up in the Scherzo except for questions of density of sound. Fragmented military calls to arms follow the opening mists before things become enshrouded once again in shadows.  Sustained with great concentration the slow movement’s melancholy is indivisible from a more tensile urgency, dramatically, even convulsively expressed.  And this spirit of red-hot engagement surges into the finale, initially gimlet-aggressive, but one that becomes increasingly engulfing, and that posits the imminence of celebration through a tumult of voicings and the return of material from the opening movement.  
 
Having not heard any rival versions I can only urge you to hear this symphony in whichever version you can find it. It does everything a good symphony should, and more besides. There are three orchestras and three conductors involved in this Lyrita retrieval. Needless to say the recording operates at the level once referred to as “demonstration quality.” 
 
Jonathan Woolf 

see also review by Rob Barnett (Recording of the Month March 2007) and John Quinn

Lyrita catalogue 

 


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