I will not be the first reviewer to note that Arthur Benjamin’s
most popular work is the ubiquitous Jamaican Rumba. According
to the Arkiv catalogues there are some 36 versions of this work
currently available to the listener. In 1938 he wrote the work
for two pianos, but it was later dished up in a number of incarnations:
it is most usually heard in its orchestral guise. I am not ashamed
to say that I love it.
Slightly more adventurous listeners will have bought his Symphony
on the Lyrita or the Marco Polo labels.review
[JQ] By implication they will have been introduced to
the Cotillion Dances, the Overture to an Italian Comedy
and the North American Square Dance Suite. In 2001 Dutton
Epoch released a CD of interesting and attractive chamber pieces,
including the Sonata for viola and piano (see below). Other
bits and pieces are scattered throughout the catalogues, some
of which appear quite hard to get.
However, the fact remains that only a tiny percentage of Benjamin’s
works have been recorded. The listings in Grove Music Online
note over thirty works for orchestra alone. Then there are the
six operas, a large array of songs, much chamber music and many
piano solos. Another important element of Benjamin’s work was
his commitment to film music.
Dutton have chosen to record three concerted works, two of which
are world premiere recordings. However, note that Viola Concerto
in its earlier chamber incarnation, the ‘Elegy, Waltz and Toccata’
was recorded in a version for viola and piano by William Primrose,
and as the Sonata for Viola and piano it has been released on
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7110.
A detailed biography of the composer is not necessary here and
the reader is referred to Pam
Blevins’ excellent article on these pages; not to mention
Editor’s article also on this site. However a few notes
will not go amiss.
Arthur Benjamin was born in Sydney, Australia in 1893, and was
given his standard musical grounding in Brisbane. He was hailed
as something of a genius. In 1911 he sailed to England to study
at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford
and Thomas Dunhill. He served in the Great War as a gunner in
the Royal Flying Corps and was later a prisoner of war at the
Ruhleben camp near Berlin. After a short period in Australia
as piano professor at the New South Wales Conservatorium (1919–21)
he returned to London. He was appointed to the staff at the
RCM. Benjamin had a heavy schedule of performances as a concert
pianist. Two of his major triumphs were the first performances
of the piano concertos by Gershwin and Lambert in the United
In 1938 Arthur Benjamin went to Vancouver where he taught and
gave radio broadcasts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
He was duly appointed to the conductorship of the CBC Symphony
Orchestra. After the end of the Second World War Benjamin returned
to the United Kingdom and resumed his job at the RCM. He died
in London on April 10, 1960.
The Violin Concerto is an undoubted masterpiece. Constant Lambert
noted that this work stood out ‘because of its general air of
smartness . . . in the word's most complimentary sense. The
concerto is clear, logical, slick, and well turned out . . .
It is a brilliantly executed work, the type of piece in which
English music is so painfully lacking.’ Frank Howes writing
in the then current Grove (Supplementary Volume) suggested that
this work reflected ‘the fashion for crisp and dry writing.’
Arthur Benjamin composed the Concerto in 1931. On 29 January
1933 it was given a ‘run through’ at a studio (Studio 10) with
the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Antonio Brosa as soloist. Other
works at that broadcast included Delius’s On Hearing the
First Cuckoo in Spring, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini
and Haydn’s Symphony No.101 (The Clock). The programme
was conducted by Frank Bridge, with Benjamin conducting his
The Concerto eschewed the traditional formal structure. Benjamin
has given three movements, however the first is a ‘Rhapsody’,
the second is an ‘Intermezzo’ and the finale is, more traditionally,
a ‘rondo’. An early reviewer was concerned that the melodies
played by the soloist were accompanied by short motifs picked
out on the other instruments, often brass. He was troubled as
to what was the main material of the movement – the epigrams
or the rhapsody? It seemed to him to present a difficulty in
focusing on the long-breathed phrases and the short motifs at
the same time. Wendy Hiscocks, in her excellent liner-notes,
suggests that there are an ‘almost overwhelming number of musical
ideas’. However she assures us that there are only some eight
initial themes and four motifs to contend with! Actually there
is some considerable beauty in these pages and I guess that
the listener who has absorbed the Walton Violin Concerto and
other works of the mid-to-late twentieth-century will have little
trouble in appreciating and enjoying this complex of sounds.
The music is often challenging without ever becoming too difficult
The Intermezzo is on more secure grounds, owing something to
Delius and to Vaughan Williams. It has a ‘lilting siciliana'
as its fundamental theme. This is introspective music that allows
the soloist to soliloquise in a deeply moving manner.
The Rondo strikes me as having the energy and vitality of Stravinsky
as its motivation without it in any way being a parody. The
soloist is called upon to provide all sorts of technical gymnastics.
Yet, even in amongst all this energy and drive there is a certain
sadness and reflection. However, by the end of the work all
this is blown away and the work ends in a blaze of excitement
The Times reviewer on 31 January 1933 suggested that this work
contained ‘much of interest, some moments of beauty and some
crisp effect, but it is not a violin concerto.’ I guess I have
to disagree with him. Things have come a long way since 1933
– formally, melodically and harmonically. Certainly, anyone
coming to this work for the first time will have no difficulty
in regarding the work as an entity. It is a concerto by any
canons of criticism applied in our time. Furthermore, I believe
that after a few hearings listeners will come to see this as
The Romantic Fantasy for violin and viola is a substantial
piece lasting well over twenty minutes. It was composed in 1936
in response to a request from the great violist Lionel Tertis.
The score is dedicated to Arnold Bax. In fact, Lewis Foreman
has noted the opening theme of the work quotes the ‘faery horn
theme from Bax’s In the Faery Hills’.
The work is in three well-balanced movements with an opening
Nocturne, a Scherzino and a Sonata-Finale. However the design
of the piece allows the movements to slip into each other.
The combination of violin and viola in concerted form is somewhat
unusual. Yet Benjamin’s mastery of technique and orchestral
colouring makes this seem perfectly natural. In fact the instruments
do not compete: they support, comment and engage with each other.
However, this is not a simple work, there sounds to be difficulties
on every page. In fact, William Primrose, who recorded this
work, has noted the tricky cadenzas in this work, not only for
the soloists but also for the ensemble.
I am sure that the Romantic Fantasy tells a story. Yet
we are not going to find just what that narrative was. I guess
that the title balances both generally used meanings of the
word ‘romance’. Certainly the reprise of the gorgeous opening
theme at the very end is a master stroke. It is guaranteed to
bring a tear to a glass eye.
If the listener is looking for an antecedent for this work he
could worse than to imagine influences from William Walton,
Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius –and dare I say it Erich Wolfgang
The Romantic Fantasy was first issued on RCA in 1965
with Heifetz and Primrose as the soloists.
The final work on this CD is an orchestration of the Viola Sonata
dating from 1942. The work is also known as the Elegy, Waltz
and Toccata and was originally composed for the great violist
William Primrose. Benjamin and Primrose had already worked in
partnership. There were recordings of the Jamaican Rumba,
Matty Rag, Cookie and From San Domingo.
This is a dark work that does not endear itself to the listener
– at least not on a first (or even second) hearing.
Lewis Foreman has noted that the Viola Sonata is essentially
a ‘wartime’ piece – with the central ‘Waltz’ being more like
a 'danse macabre'’ rather than anything more romantically inclined.
The ‘Toccata’ has been described as projecting a ‘manic, surreal
The Concerto was first heard at the 1949 Cheltenham Festival
with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra and
with Frederick Riddle as the soloist. Amusingly, the contemporary
reviewer in The Musical Times notes the ready charm (!) and
vitality expected of Arthur Benjamin. Both adjectives do not
apply to this work. Yet there are some impressive pyrotechnics
for the soloist to engage with.
Interestingly, Hans Keller writing in 1950 suggested that ‘sadly
enough, it is the arrangement of his own viola sonata as viola
concerto which would appear to misfire in parts, both because
the orchestration tautologizes and because it sometimes dims
If the listener is looking for a stylistic comparison, it would
be best to view this work in the light of Hindemith. However
as with the concerto this work is not beholden to anyone.
If I am honest, I did not enjoy this work – there is to my ear
not enough light emerging from the score - if that is not mixing
a metaphor. It is largely dark and troubled. Yet I am convinced
that this is another work that is possibly one of the composer’s
best: it is just getting one’s head round it that is the problem.
The production of this CD is excellent. Everything about it
feels good. Naturally the most important thing is the music,
which has been beautifully recorded. Every nuance of the violin
and viola solos is finely balanced against the orchestra. Both
soloists make an amazing contribution to this disc - Lorraine
McAslan in the difficult Violin Concerto is seriously impressive.
Equally so, Sarah-Jane Bradley brings drive and drama to the
thorny Viola Concerto. Both work together perfectly in the gorgeous
Romantic Fantasy. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and
the conductor, John Gibbons are quite obviously committed to
this music: their enthusiasm is palpable. The liner-notes by
Wendy Hiscocks are impressive, although a little bit more biography
may have been useful for any listener not ‘au fait’ with Arthur
Benjamin’s life and works. As usual with Dutton Epoch recordings
the sleeve makes uses of some stunning poster art.
Let us hope that this superb recording is the start of something
big for the music of Arthur Benjamin. I guess that Dutton do
not need me to remind them of the large number of musical possibilities
they have for furthering Benjamin’s interests. However, just
for the ‘record’ how about the Prelude to a Holiday,
the Concertino for piano and orchestra, the Light Music Suite
and the ‘Concerto quasi una Fantasia’.
This is a fantastic CD. I hope that all enthusiasts of British
music will rush out to buy it. I can hardly begin to imagine
how such important and beautiful works (if a little difficult
in places) have remained largely hidden from view for so long.
It has been a great pleasure and an honour to review this CD.