Richard Rodney Bennett
Noctuary
Impromptu on the name of Haydn
Tango after Syrinx
Three Romantic Pieces
Impromptu on a theme of Henri Dutilleux
Excursions
Memento
Theme from Eustace and Hilda
Sonata
Fantasy
Five Studies
Scena I
Diversions
Taking a line for a walk
Seven Days a Week
A Week of Birthdays
Partridge Pie
Martin Jones (piano)

Recorded 7-9 April 2003 in Potton Hall, Suffolk
CD No: METRONOME
MET CD 1068/1069
(2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 23 minutes
Reviewed: July 2004
It is invariably unwise to judge a composer's entire output by those pieces which happen to be the best known or the most 'popular' – whatever the latter might mean in any given context.
Richard Rodney Bennett's solo piano compositions, as represented on this pair of discs, are much more wide-ranging than might be supposed. Bennett is very much an 'all-round' musician; and his activities as a jazz-pianist and film-music composer have perhaps overshadowed his compositions in other spheres.
The first disc opens with the most substantial piece – the Noctuary, of some twenty-four minutes' duration. Originally conceived as a ballet for Kenneth McMillan, Noctuary is, to all intents and purposes, sets of variations on themes by Scott Joplin, and encompasses a diverse range of 20th-century styles, with nods towards Ravel and Scriabin, amongst others. Some of the writing is quite knotty and often divergent from the original themes, of which the return of one at the close is quite touching. All told, this weighty composition is a satisfying depiction of the title's meaning – “a diary of the events of the night.”
The majority of Bennett's solo piano music might be described as 'miniatures' in terms of duration if not substance, and the remaining pieces on the first disc exemplify this description. The Impromptu on the name of Haydn was a BBC commission to mark the 250th anniversary of Haydn's birth. Bennett creates a theme from the five letters of Haydn's name, with ingenious results. Debussy's Syrinx for solo flute has been an inspiration for a number of Bennett's pieces, and that ruminative, wistful flute music finds reflection not only in Bennett's Tango after Syrinx, but also in other pieces of a more contemplative character.
The Excursions of 1999 are three short movements characterised by directness of utterance, with the third, an allegro, being especially memorable for its apparent attempts to transform itself into Dave Brubeck's Take Five, although actually it’s a tribute to Howard Ferguson, as are the Three Romantic Pieces, written in 1988 for Ferguson's 80th birthday. The Theme from Eustace and Hilda, which rounds off the first CD, is a brief reminder of Bennett's distinctive – and distinguished – contribution to television music.
The Sonata, of 1954, is the earliest work included, and opens CD 2. A terse conception in three movements of just under ten minutes' duration, it was written whilst Bennett was still a student. Its language is quite removed from what might be termed Bennett's 'lighter' style, with possible shades of Hindemith and Bartók, and not-without hints of near-atonality. For a composer not yet twenty, it shows remarkable assurance, and perhaps represents a compositional path Bennett might have followed had he been so inclined.
Similarly, the Fantasy of 1962, is in three movements, and here Bennett integrates some aspects of serial technique, perhaps as a result of his having been Pierre Boulez's first composition pupil. This piece is mercurial in mood and texture and, as elsewhere, Martin Jones is a most sympathetic and effective advocate.
The Five Studies, completed in 1964, are also exercises in technique, no doubt reflecting Richard Rodney Bennett's own considerable prowess as a pianist, with studies 2 and 4 being, respectively, for the right and left hands.
Scena 1 was composed for the 1974 BBC Piano Competition and incorporates a whole range of pianistic devices. What might have been a mere showpiece is prevented from being so by the considerable musical invention on display.
The remaining pieces – or sets thereof – were written for didactic purposes and one would not necessarily wish to listen to them all in succession. But the rhythmic élan and vitality on display, and the fresh melodic invention make for delightful and diverting listening. The onomatopoeic effects of Partridge Pie (the objects, creatures and personages from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) are a joy.
Throughout this substantial collection, Martin Jones is ideally responsive to the music’s varying demands and to the stylistic divergence. Whether quietly reflective, or more forthright, Jones captures the character of the music most aptly. The piano itself is caught in sound that is virtually ideal, and this issue whets the appetite for the forthcoming releases in this most welcome survey of Richard Rodney Bennett’s piano music. I particularly look forward to the CD containing the Piano Concerto.
Metronome has once again done sterling service by making available less-than-familiar repertoire in thoroughly recommendable performances in a fine production.

 

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