RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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]
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. 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
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 a masterpiece.
The Romantic Fantasy for violin and piano 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 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
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
This is a fantastic CD.