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Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Orchestral Works Volume 1
Celebration (1991) [4:30]
Concerto for Marimba and Chamber orchestra (1987-88) [16:19]
Summer Music (1982) version for Chamber orchestra [10:14]
Symphony No 3 (1987) [21:24]
Sinfonietta (1984) [9:17]
Colin Currie (marimba)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, 2017

The nomenclature boasting this release as volume 1, may initially be a little confusing because in 2006 Richard Hickox recorded a disc of Richard Rodney Bennett, which was also a volume 1 and included the ‘Partita’ and ‘Songs before Sleep’. However in 2008 tragically, Hickox died and the proposed further volumes dropped.

So now we have what is effectively a volume 2 and John Wilson is at the helm, a very good choice I feel.

If you wanted to sample a single track why not start at the end with the light-hearted Sinfonietta written for the 50th Anniversary of the National Federation of Music Societies. It’s a compact work cramming four movements into less than ten minutes that flow without a break. In fact there are five tempo markings beginning and ending with a bold fanfare ‘vivo’ and containing a romantic ‘Lento e dolce’ section all in Bennett’s lighter style and brilliantly crafted and orchestrated.

You could equally start with the first track, Celebration. The notes enthusiastically described it as a miniature concerto for orchestra having been dedicated to “The founders, subscribers and musicians of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra” and how they must have enjoyed its typically American exuberance and as Richard Bratby writes it is in the “bustling manner of Walton’s Johannesburg’s Festival Orchestra”, - terrific stuff.

Listening to Summer Music whilst the January sleet hammered onto our cottage roof made me feel very nostalgic, a mood enhanced even more strongly by the ‘Siesta’ middle movement, which has a distinct air of lost love more than the cheery summer-gambolling-in-the fields feel of the outer, faster movements. Originally the piece was for flute and piano and aimed at an ‘intermediate’ flautist but in 1984 the composer arranged it for small orchestra and its this version we hear in its premier recording. This perfect piece of so-called ‘light’ music is dedicated to that doyen of light music composers Angela Morley and her partner Christine Parker.

Bennett admitted in an interview that he found writing a Marimba Concerto difficult, which is very heartening for the rest of us in many ways and it’s fascinating to hear how he negotiated the problems. A Marimba, incidentally, consists of wooden bars struck with mallets but with its sound enhanced by a resonator. This work is in two movements. The first uses the soloist as a member of the ensemble almost impressionistically. There are occasional rhythmic passages, which almost reminded me of Tippett. But, although the movement has two short cadenzas it’s in the second part marked ‘Con brio molto ritmico’ that the marimba ‘takes off’, as it were, culminating in what the first performer, the American William Moersch, described as “perhaps one of the most athletic and demanding in the repertoire”. Colin Currie negotiates the work not only sensitively but also with precision and dynamism. I don’t know about you but the only other Marimba concerto I’ve ever heard is the one by the American Libby Larson (Koch 3-7520-2). But hers was written in 1994. The earliest seems to be by the American Paul Creston in 1940.

But the main work on this disc is Bennett’s Third Symphony a three-movement work dedicated to Edward Downes. It’s a pity in a way that this first volume takes the symphonies backwards as it were, but the twelve-tone First Symphony (which I much look forward to hearing again) would not have worked in the context of these other pieces. In his 1972 book Contemporary British Music (MacDonald) Francis Routh comments that Bennett shows “a certain ambiguity” and adds that “his major works are unquestioningly 12-note, yet he combines this with a remarkable fluency”. Bennett, was a pupil of Lennox Berkeley who also sometimes used a version of serial technique (i.e. Symphony no 3) could also write lighter music.

I was present at the first performance of this symphony at Worcester Cathedral in 1987 and I was able to ask the composer, rather boldly, now that he had not found his initial inspiration from a twelve-tone row, as in his two symphonies of twenty years earlier, where had he found his initial inspiration for this new symphony. He looked rather knowingly at me and then smiling pointed to the skies. In fact as Bratby’s notes say, the composer is indeed moving in a different sphere and that the ‘journey towards tonality is central to the symphony’s narrative’.

It would be fair to say that the tonality, though not always clear as it searches for direction, is always intensely lyrical and the orchestration is often dreamy and atmospheric. Eventually, as the finale winds down from its glorious final melody a C minor resolution is reached, as if the composer was finally willing to accept that a compromise between his ‘concert music’ as he preferred to call it and his ‘lighter’ works had been resolved. Bennett told his biographers with a somewhat curious disregard for grammar, “My Third Symphony is my favourite piece I ever wrote”. One can see why. It’s well worth getting to know. And the performance here and throughout the disc is ideal, clearly recorded and affectionately handled by a conductor who knew he composer and obviously admires, indeed loves, his work.

Gary Higginson



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