Richard Rodney Bennett
Troubadour Music (2006)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1968)
Aubade for Orchestra (1964)
Country Dances – Book I for Orchestra (2001)
Anniversaries for Orchestra (1982)
Michael McHale (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
John Wilson (conductor)
Recorded at City Halls, Glasgow July 2019
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5244 [SACD]
Duration: 65 minutes 52 seconds
The opening item, Troubadour Music, is a brilliantly written score showing this incomparably gifted musician at the height of his powers. A somewhat superficial assessment of the work might compare it to Walton’s Partita or Capriccio Burlesco as models – as, indeed, they may have been. Where Bennett suffers from such a comparison is the younger man’s lack of thematic individuality or distinction. Bennett’s Troubadour Music is a perfect example of a pièce d’occasion: it is scored with the ear and comprehensive technique of a master, the material falling easily and readily within our perception – but once the occasion for its existence has passed, one may legitimately wonder if the music itself is of sufficient memorability as to draw the listener back.
It may be that lack of a distinctive Bennett style ultimately tells against it – but it remains a dazzling score, orchestrated with such skill as to place Bennett quite literally in a class by himself: no other composer of his generation, of whichever nationality, could write music with such accomplishment. It is brilliantly performed, Wilson and the BBC Scottish capturing the inherently buoyant character of the work to a T.
This is followed by the third recording of Bennett’s Piano Concerto, and it is fully up to the high standards set by its predecessors. A somewhat back-handed compliment that used to be levelled at Bennett (often a thinly-veiled expression of envy) was that he could write in any style you wished, without actually revealing any strong individuality himself: in other words, a musical chameleon who could dash off whatever you wanted at a moment’s notice.
Perhaps he could: he certainly had the facility, but with that facility came a truly comprehensive mastery and a magnificent ear: I remember at a rehearsal of one of his ENO operas – I think it was The Mines of Sulphur – he pointed out in one fully-scored passage a mistake in the viola parts (at a point where two solo characters were singing forte on stage): it had passed unnoticed at earlier rehearsals by everyone, including conductor, and Richard did not have the score with him at the time. What could never be levelled at him was a lack of musicianship; in his serious works, he was a serious composer, and in the Piano Concerto, whilst Bennett could so easily have delivered a post-Rachmaninovian-Bartókian-Shostakovichian-Brittenish piece of sub-Waltonian musical dramaturgy, currying favour with popular fashion at the expense of artistic integrity, by 1968, with The Beatles on the point of collapse and any expression of populist heart-on-sleeve emotion guaranteed a critical backlash, Bennett showed just what he was capable of. I confess for years i have had ‘trouble’ with this Concerto: Alexander Gibson, conductor of the first recording (with Stephen Kovacevich) much admired the work at a time when I could not get to grips with it (Alex became frustrated at my failure), and Martin Jones, soloist on the second recording, told me in no uncertain terms that it is “a masterpiece”.
Well, it has taken until now for me to get within striking distance of a work which will never be popular, but which will stand as a score of enormously impressive artistic – not least expressive – achievement. The structure is ideal: the piano-writing is simply magnificent, and the scale of the work – the placing of the cadenzas, especially – reveals a master’s hand. Bennett makes no concessions – he doesn’t have to. It is up to intelligent music-lovers to do the work, and not expect the composer to make things easy for them. This is by no means modern-day woke music: the rewards are there, certainly, and one must admire the commitment of musicians and record company to the legacy of a remarkable composer. Michael McHale’s performance of the solo part is superb, as is that of the orchestra, and this joins the earlier recordings as must-hear accounts of a work that, in my experience, reveals aspects of Bennett in a manner as do few of his other large-scale concert pieces.
I heard the Proms premiere, fifty-six years ago, of Bennett’s Aubade – in Memory of John Hollingsworth. Proms regulars in those days knew Hollingsworth as a fine and very experienced conductor, who was also very active in film music: he made too few recordings. Bennett’s Aubade is more than a memorial ‘occasional’ piece for the young conductor, taken from us all-too-soon: it is that rare type of particularly English composition – such as was often essayed by Delius or Vaughan Williams in less-blustery moments. There is an overriding sense of involvement in Bennett’s piece which, however, does inhabit tragedy: it is more gently contemplative, with each phrase leading to the next as continuous variation technique. The emotional range is, suitably, not great, beautifully paced, structurally satisfying. Wilson directs a very good performance indeed.
Bennett’s Country Dances, of which I have heard several versions from the selection he made, has never seemed to me to be wholly successful. Of course, it possesses all the Bennett surface qualities, but my overall impression is that of a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ score, the folk-like original material just placed in suitable aural context without any particularly beguiling original features.
Brevity – in the sense that the sectionalisation into eleven parts of a continuous work that plays for just under seventeen minutes – is also apparent in Anniversaries from 1982; here is another ‘occasional’ piece, beautifully wrought in terms of mini- and macro-structuralisation, orchestrated with a deft hand and posing no problems either for performers or listeners.Despite what may appear to be somewhat dismissive comments on the ultimate value of some of this music, I strongly recommend this latest volume in John Wilson’s Richard Rodney Bennett series: overall, with the earlier Concertos and the three astonishingly original Symphonies (in which, I maintain, the ‘true Bennett’ is to be found) this latest disc is fully up to the very high standards set by the earlier releases. Chandos continues to lead the classical recording world – in which I include what is left of the ‘majors’ – for the superlative quality of recorded sound. The presentation is excellent; the booklet cover reproduces Bennett’s collage for the conductor at the time of Wilson’s moving house in 2011.