Lyrita – Arthur Benjamin

0 of 5 stars

Overture to an Italian Comedy
Cotillon, A Suite of Dance Tunes
North American Square Dance Suite

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Myer Fredman [Overture]

London Symphony Orchestra
Nicholas Braithwaite [Cotillon]

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth

Recording dates and locations not advised in Lyrita’s annotation; copyright dates are 1971 [Overture], 1982 [Cotillon] and 2007

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: April 2007
Duration: 77 minutes

The arrangement recently made by Lyrita Recorded Edition and the Wyastone Estate is of importance not only in restoring to circulation those releases both already issued and awaiting issue on CD, but also in making available various Lyrita tapings for the first time in any format, while hopefully returning to the catalogue those British Council-sponsored performances acquired in previous years. Presentation is laudably straightforward, but booklet notes could have been proofed a little more thoroughly, while the absence of detailed recording dates and personnel is regrettable in a series of this significance.

The disc of orchestral music by Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) draws on two vinyl miscellanies and also features two previously non-issued performances. As Calum MacDonald points out in his extensive note, Benjamin suffered from his ongoing success as a composer of light music (not least Jamaican Rumba) – to the extent that his concert works and operas never really established themselves. The present issue gets the balance between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ right. It opens with the sparkling Overture to an Italian Comedy (1936), incisively directed by Myer Fredman, and continues with Cotillon, A Suite of English Dances (1938) that reveals Benjamin as the equal of Respighi when it comes to presenting music from the past in an entertaining modern context. Nicholas Braithwaite is fully responsive to its wit and whimsy, while Barry Wordsworth is equally convincing in North American Square Dance Suite (1951) – a collection of ‘settler’ tunes that contrasts such as the plaintive ‘He piped so Sweet’ and wistful ‘Calder Fair’ with livelier numbers such as ‘Fill the Bowl’ and ‘The Old Punk’ (which prompts the thought that, as pictured on the booklet cover, Benjamin bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Joe Strummer!).

The most substantial work here is the Symphony that Benjamin composed in the last months of the Second World War and which enjoyed several outings between 1948 and 1954, only then to languish until recent years. MacDonald reckons to the influence of Mahler as well as the more expected one of Sibelius, but an even more potent model is surely the Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev – completed and premiered just months earlier, whose presence is palpable in the spaciously conceived and densely textured first movement (marked Largo-Allegro, though the introduction is not marked off as such and the movement as a whole unfolds at a decidedly moderate tempo), as well as the lyrical intensity of the Adagio appassionato – with its alternating of the elegiac and ominous, and a coda of notably resigned calm. Between them comes a spectral scherzo of real subtlety and finesse, and the work ends with an extrovert finale that likewise makes imaginative use of tuned percussion on its way to the triumphal restatement of the symphony’s initial ‘motto’ and a brusquely affirmative conclusion.

Wordsworth’s account is good but not outstanding – the repeated-note syncopation of the scherzo’s trio section lacks bite, while the passage of string polyphony that opens the third movement ought to have been retaken – but he has the overall measure of the work: one that, if not among the finest or most representative symphonies of its era, still impresses through its seriousness of purpose.

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