"Bennett’s orchestral music, eh?" a friend exclaimed, when I told him of this Chandos release, the first of a series. He continued, “No-one should be so gifted, but Bennett never wrote a memorable tune in his life.”
I knew what he meant – indeed, I used to think that myself – but I was wrong and he is wrong. In music, Bennett could do anything – anything at all – except (perhaps) play every orchestral instrument (as Paul Hindemith could), but the “memorable tune” jibe has tended to stick – in so far as the greater extent of Richard Rodney Bennett’s output is considered.
I disagree about Bennett’s music being unmemorable – I can cite a number of wonderful original tunes – the ‘Samba triste’ that opens his Four-piece Suite for Two Pianos, and the pop song ‘Lonely man in a lonely room’ he wrote for Hardy Kruger in the film Blind Date, are two that instantly spring to mind – but memorable melodic material certainly ought not, in Bennett’s case, to be a critical criterion for the majority of his music – nor for any composer.
The clue lies in the phrase “Bennett could do anything” in music. He could: from wonderful film music of the highest calibre, in terms of reinforcing the mood and dramatic action on screen, he was unbeatable, to full-scale operatic works – tragic and comic (unaccountably ignored by our national companies), a succession of astonishing Concertos and chamber music, a wide range of orchestral works (as on this Chandos disc) – but the point is not merely (merely!) that he could write this stuff, but what is expressed through the music.
And he could do it from the earliest age. I remember vividly my first encounter with Bennett’s music, at the Royal Academy of Music, when his Third String Quartet was given – written, I believe, at the age of fifteen. I was so jealous, and was equally gobsmacked when, around 1956, I was at the first performance of his Music for Two Pianos at Wigmore Hall (my piano teacher was one of the pianists – one movement only was given, as the work was uncharacteristically unfinished in time). That piece was totally Boulezian, and, for almost everyone in the Hall, totally incomprehensible – after which I attempted his Piano Sonata (written at the age of eighteen), very different music, and I was further blown away by his Second Solo Violin Sonata. Then his very early film scores: almost all of these pieces being utterly different music in terms of expressive language, yet the unifying thread was their astonishingly assured manner: whatever one thought of the individual pieces, here was a composer who knew exactly what he was doing, and did it with total command.
It was his facility that has, I am now convinced after all these years, led to a widespread misunderstanding of what Bennett was about, from performers, critics and the listening public. For there is no immediately recognisable Bennett ‘style’ – in the sense that one can recognise Walton, Tippett, Britten or Arnold after a dozen bars – a state of artistic affairs that is endemic to very many composers of Bennett’s generation: the 1950s-early 1960s.
In that regard, I feel the long-term unsettling effects of the Second World War are to be found in almost all European composers born within 1926-1939 (Bennett in 1936, he died in 2012): either a chameleon-like approach, from Henze to Maxwell Davies, as if unwilling to put down roots and continue from there, whilst accepting an ‘anything goes’ approach in terms of style from one work to the next, making individuality difficult to ascertain – the pre-war European stabilities replaced by a confrontational Cold War Europe from which, artistically, we have still not fully recovered – anything for a quiet life.
If Bennett’s music epitomises that ‘I’ll provide you with whatever you want’ approach, I must urge the listener not to be solely seduced by the composer’s incomparable palette: the fact of his mastery of strictly classical procedures, of jazz composition and of the widest range of compositional and performance styles – his attractive singing voice, his great gifts as a pianist and as a late-developing abstract artist (one of his collages forms the cover of the Chandos booklet) – it is perfectly understandable to be impressed by all of this creative excellence to the point where what Bennett is conveying in the works in question is overlooked.
Each piece has to be taken on its own terms, and on none other, and that any preconceptions have to be abandoned. Only in this way, I believe, can the range and depth of Bennett’s genius be explored, for his music can go very deep indeed – as it does, in the Third Symphony (his final work in the genre) – as well as enliven (as in Celebration), subtly entertain (Sinfonietta) or beguile (Summer Music), or surprise us (Marimba Concerto).
Bennett’s music speaks to the listener directly – but you have to listen properly. This first volume has been very well chosen. It opens with the short Celebration (1991), its qualities outshine any temporal doubts. Written for the Maryland Symphony, and beginning as a quasi-Waltonian post-Troilus and Cressida occasional work, it is a brilliant showpiece with virtuoso writing that may not be as difficult to play as it sounds, leavened by a winding horn theme that is quite superbly articulated. Here is Bennett the consummate professional, displaying his seemingly effortless mastery at its most elegant, with John Wilson drawing from the BBC Scottish SO a response of the highest quality.
The two-movement Marimba Concerto (1988) follows – in which Bennett achieves the downright impossible. In what one might assume to be a work of somewhat brittle colouration (as in parts of Milhaud’s Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone and Orchestra), Bennett has written a manifestly serious work of art. The first movement is shot through with concentrated thought, and the second, consistently faster, culminates in a colossal and wholly compelling cadenza, played by Colin Currie with supreme technical and musical excellence. The result is stunning.
Bennett composed three Symphonies, and they could not be more different in conception and scope. Older readers may recall the almost feverish expectation that the premiere of the First Symphony engendered in 1966 (commissioned by the LSO; the New York Philharmonic commissioned No.2 the following year for Bernstein). Twenty years elapsed before the Third appeared – a Three Choirs Festival commission.
Bennett’s Third Symphony is a very different proposition, and I have no hesitation in regarding it as an astounding masterpiece – wholly against the contemporaneous run of play of thirty years ago, and light years apart from its two dazzling predecessors. The opening is extraordinarily original: quiet woodwind and strings with genuine inner movement (not momentum), a pastoral atmosphere, yet soon underlying it is a hint of emotional uncertainty, rippling against the sylvan surface. As the music unfolds, there is no doubt that this is to be an intimate work of much significance – almost as though the composer is unwilling to invite the listener to share in his discoveries. Emotionally, the music is always set a little back from what one might have expected as the symphonic foreground – but achieved with such artistic surefootedness that it becomes a great symphonic work, not in scale but in emotionally expressive achievement.
There’s no Walton here! – one might think – yet the music appears to inhabit a strikingly similar mood of contemplation, such as we discern in the opening pages of Walton’s Third Symphony (for Previn), which the older master was unable to continue. There is so much to admire, and be moved by, in this Bennett 3 – witness the long horn theme, strongly reminiscent of Hindemith, gradually building to a remarkable stretch of tutti writing – melodic, yet again the composer almost unwilling to lay his heart fully on his sleeve, the inner message of which the listener has to experience personally after entering this particular musical painting, rich in contemplation. This performance is magnificent.
Summer Music is an orchestration by the composer of a work originally written for flute and piano in 1982, and reveals Bennett in lighter (but not ‘light’) mood, supremely well crafted for small orchestra, and, in the concluding Sinfonietta (1984) Bennett shoe-horns the plan of a four-movement Symphony in segued fashion, opening with what might appear to be a slice of Celebration, if rather less incisive: the slow ‘movement’ has very beautiful melodic writing over a rich harmonic basis, effortlessly leading to a gossamer Scherzo before a march-like Finale of Waltonian stamp – Walton as film music composer, perhaps – before the somewhat surprising ending leaves us wanting more.
That will come on successive volumes in this series, which has got off to the finest possible start – not least in its choice of conductor. John Wilson is the ideal interpreter of this composer’s music for a variety of reasons, including his empathy, total grasp and inspiring direction. The result, captured in impressive sound, is a fabulously successful inauguration of a badly-needed revivification of a major figure whose art is by no means as fully understood or appreciated as it deserves.