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Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Violin Concerto (1931) [26:05]
Romantic Fantasy for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (1936) [22:45]
Elegy, Waltz and Toccata (Viola Concerto) for Viola and Orchestra (1943) [18:23]
Lorraine McAslan (violin); Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/John Gibbons
rec. RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 26-27 May 2011
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7279 [67:29]

Experience Classicsonline

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 [JW] review [RB] 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 the Classical 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 Kingdom.

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 own work.

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 or unintelligible.

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 and energy.

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 a masterpiece.

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 Korngold!

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 drive’.

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 perception.’

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.

John France











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