Now settling into its half-season pattern (from the second Saturday of August to the first Saturday of September) the Proms Saturday Matinees opened with a 75th-birthday tribute to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett with two of his concert pieces and works by two of his favourite composers. Perhaps because of its more sporadic appearance, the audience was thinner than for its Monday lunchtime cousin, but hopefully over the next three PSMs audiences will get back into the Saturday swing of things and pack these choice 90-minute (straight-through) concerts that have contemporary slang.
This programme had a French feeling or, rather some cross-pollination across the Channel, with Bennett influenced by Debussy, and Dutilleux offering thanks to a better reception in Britain than in his homeland; while the remaining pieces contrasted musical views from Britain itself. Dream Dancing was a London Sinfonietta commission 25 years ago, then celebrating R. R. Bennett’s 50th-birthday. Effortlessly assuming a Debussian guise, Bennett dreamt of the sixth sonata Debussy was planning late in life, of which only three were written (for violin and piano, for cello and piano, and the one for flute, viola and harp). The others in Debussy’s original plan were to be for increasingly intriguing combinations: oboe, horn and harpsichord, then clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, piano and double bass before, finally, one for all the instruments he had previously used. That final combination was Bennett’s starting point, with some instrumental doublings, and he cast his offering in two movements, the first clearly modelled on Debussy’s solo flute Syrinx and the second underpinned with the distinctive rhythm from ‘Ibéria’ (from Images pour orchestra), although it is explicitly modelled on the piano solo Masques. Dream dancing is dedicated to Kenneth and Lady MacMillan.
Nicholas Collon guided the London Sinfonietta in a distinguished and loving performance, revelling in Bennett’s assumption of French style, typically in its quiet evaporation at the end.
Twenty years older than Bennett is the doyen of French music, Henri Dutilleux, something of a featured composer this Proms season. Here we had his unusually scored Les citations, for oboe, harpsichord, double bass and percussion, originally developed from 1985, with the second movement added in 1991 (and the double bass part). Dutilleux has subsequently returned to it and added a third movement, premiered last year in the Festival d’Auvers-sur-Oise, but in Cadogan Hall we heard the two-movement version (a ‘diptych’ in the composer’s parlance), the first of which, bearing the title ‘For Aldeburgh 85’, referring to Peter Pears’s invitation to Dutilleux to that year’s Aldeburgh Festival and including a snatch from Peter Grimes in the tenor’s honour. Sparse in texture, the instruments rarely sounding together, the first movement opens with a long, sinewy oboe solo, with brief appearances by the other instruments, while the second movement, ‘From Janequin to Jehan Alain’ (heralded by the harpsichord this time) utilises a theme by Jehan Alain (who died on 20 June 1940, fifty years before Dutilleux was composing his piece) that itself was based on a motif by Clément Janequin (c.1485-1558). The second movement is more febrile than the first, with a virtuosic part for the double bass, the constant varying of pace becoming increasingly involving as it builds to its ringing climax.
Another of Bennett’s favourite composers is Elizabeth Maconchy, whose career was heralded with Sir Henry Wood’s 1930 premiere of The Land. Here Paul Silverthorne returned to her Romanza. Perhaps surprisingly a product of the 1970s, especially as its demeanour is like Maconchy’s teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams, it is a yearning, heartfelt work for Maconchy’s beloved instrument, couched in an musical arch with the opening melancholy returning, notable for its beautiful interplay between soloist, horn and oboe, to die away quietly.
We moved back another decade for a complete change of mood and instrumentation, with Bennett’s Jazz Calendar. Given a completely free reign for a 1964 BBC Third Programme commission, Bennett opted for straight jazz (another passion) – as opposed to ‘third stream’ (for which read ‘crossover’). It’s a seven-movement piece based on the traditional poem (first published in 1838) that begins “Monday’s child is fair of face”. One of his original band – as the composer himself explained in a brief conversation with Christopher Cook – was John Dankworth, and his real inspiration were the great jazz arrangers, Marty Paich and Gil Evans. Four years later when he’d refused Frederick Ashton’s request to create a ballet to his First Symphony (he says he doesn’t quite know why he refused), he suggested instead Ashton use Jazz Calendar, and was bowled over that the choreographer agreed, and was even more bowled over with the production and starring Rudolph Nureyev and Merle Park. With an off-beat rocking reminiscent of the opening to Mahler’s Ninth, ‘Monday’s Child’ builds and eventually ebbs in rather thoughtful tones, while ‘Tuesday’s Child’ is wilful in its grace, settling into a series of solos from including low, mellifluous flute. ‘Wednesday’s Child’ settles into a slow tread of woe, headed by wailing sax with, later, trombone counterpoint, while the far-reaching travels of ‘Thursday’s Child’ is underpinned by a fast-walking bass and propulsive repeated sax motif, developing in bright colours. ‘Friday’s Child’ and its caring nature is couched as a twelve-bar blues with wandering pianist’s fingers before a gentle ebbing away, while hard-working ‘Saturday’s Child’ alternates trombone and flute solos, perhaps indicating (s)he’s holding down at least two jobs. ‘Sunday’s Child’ gets two lines in the poem, but here Bennett (himself born on a Sunday) offers the shortest movement by way of conclusion, with some instrumental spotlights (especially drum kit), but more of a collective sign off. Collon impressed, letting the jazz-enhanced brass and reed team of the Sinfonietta take over), extending an already good reputation.
All in all a perfect Saturday-afternoon concert, although much of the above detail I researched, for my own instruction if not for yours. Despite Cook’s friendly introductions, there was no further information about the works in the printed programme apart from movement titles, performer biographies and players’ list. Certainly that’s a change (indeed, a retrograde motion) from previous years; I remember a copious programme for the Shostakovich film-music PSM.