Richard Rodney Bennett Orchestral Works Volume 1

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Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune
Songs before Sleep
Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song

Jonathan Lemalu (baritone)

Paul Watkins (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Recorded 27 & 28 May 2006 in the Colosseum, Watford

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: July 2007
Duration: 76 minutes

Has any leading British composer enjoyed a more diverse career than Richard Rodney Bennett? A disciple of avant-garde figures Elizabeth Lutyens and Pierre Boulez, one of the most distinguished film composers of the last fifty years, equally at home in the concert hall and on the cabaret circuit, he has handled it all with extraordinary flair and professionalism.

This CD rounds up four of his orchestral works from the last twelve years. At a first hearing Partita, written in 1995, sounds the least individual of the four. The first movement is a clear nod to the example of William Walton, full of the earlier composer’s rhythmic fingerprints. Closer acquaintance, however, reveals plenty of examples of Bennett’s characteristic melodic, harmonic and timbral subtlety, particularly in the haunting middle movement and the fresh, airy finale.

Partita is for a smallish orchestra with winds, horns, harp and timpani. The remaining works are for strings only. The opening of Reflections on a Sixteenth-Century Tune, of 1999, inescapably calls to mind Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasy. In fact the work is based on a song by Josquin Des Près (circa 1440-1521). From it Bennett draws a rich sequence of four extended variations, including one subtitled ‘Homage to Peter Warlock’, with its allusions to Warlock’s individual way with chromatic harmony.

Richard Rodney Bennett (b.1936) ©Katie Vandyck“Songs before Sleep”, for baritone and strings, sets a selection of children’s rhymes with a cunning blend of compositional subtlety and expressive directness worthy of Britten. It was written in 2002-3 for Jonathan Lemalu, who brings just the right hint of bed-time story to his projection of the voice part, whether in the surreal animal happenings of ‘The Mouse and the Bumble-Bee’ (a tale that might have appealed to Mahler in ‘Knaben Wunderhorn’ mood), the homeliness of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ (set by Bennett without a hint of condescension) or the bogey-man scare tactics of ‘Baby, baby, naughty baby’.

Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song, for cello and strings, was written in 2004 in response to a commission on behalf of Prince Charles for a piece in memory of the Queen Mother. The song in question is the haunting “Ca’ the yowes”, freely paraphrased in the five contrasting and remarkably inventive sections that follow. Paul Watkins is, by turns, eloquently meditative and nimble in the solo part, playing the short cadenzas that mark off the work’s different sections with seemingly nonchalant ease. As with the earlier set of Reflections, the individual sections have separate tracks.

Throughout, playing and recording alike have both warmth and a fine sense of detail, placing the two soloists in a natural-sounding perspective against the Philharmonia’s strings.

One small gripe: the atmospheric cover photo is identified merely as ‘Silhouetted castle at sunset’ (I managed to work that out for myself!). It would be nice to have been told the location.The disc is designated ‘Orchestral Works Vol. 1’. I don’t know how many Chandos has planned, but I’m looking forward to them.

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