Composer Portrait: Sir Richard Rodney Bennett

Richard Rodney Bennett
Symphony No.3
Actaeon (Metamorphosis I)

David Pyatt (horn)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Stephen Jackson

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 April, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

His long-time residency in New York means that Richard Rodney Bennett is hardly a familiar presence in the UK these days, with his music a similarly intermittent feature on concert schedules here. So, along with concerts of his light music and songs given recently in London, the BBC’s scheduling of a 70th-birthday ‘portrait’ was both timely and apposite. No new piece had been forthcoming, yet the chance to hear four works written over the course of a decade was as instructive as it was welcome.

Three orchestral works were programmed alongside “Sea-Change” (1983) for a cappella choir. Sensuousbut unaffected settings of Ariel’s songs from “The Tempest” frame a luminous rendering of Marvell’s “The Bermudas” – outer stanzas set as mellifluous tenor ariosi – and a semi-aleatoric treatment of ‘The waves come rolling’ from Spenser’s “Faerie Queene”: a recollection of Bennett’s early association with the European avant-garde, and a tangible response to marine ‘horrors’ in line with the descriptive quality prominent in British choral music. Capably directed by Stephen Jackson, the BBC Symphony Chorus made the most of its imagery, and evinced comparable warmth and lustre of tone elsewhere.

The other pieces chart the evolution of Bennett’s orchestral music over a period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. Actaeon (Metamorphosis I), from 1977, takes the legend of huntsman- becomes-stag as the basis for a tautly-argued concertante work for horn and orchestra – its three short and finely-contrasted movements (played continuously) relating the story in generalised but immediate terms, and framed by brooding adagios that set the scene and reflect on events accordingly. David Pyatt showed no hint of caution in music written for the artistry of Barry Tuckwell, and the work itself was a reminder of the contribution Bennett has made to the concerto genre over several decades.

Equally significant have been his orchestral showpieces, with Anniversaries (1982) among the most exhilarating. Jointly commemorating the 60th-birthdays of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the American composer Irwin Bazelon, this is a veritable ‘concerto for orchestra’ with passages for each section (including tuned and untuned percussion) alternating with tuttis in a fast-slow-fast trajectory deftly and viscerally achieved. With a impact redolent equally of ‘urban’ Copland and Walton (fitting for an Englishman in New York), the piece received a propulsive account from the BBCSO – its premiere performance at the 1982 Proms should have been followed by more airings than it has likely received.

It was the least demonstrative work that left the deepest impression. Symphony No.3 (1987) is a restrained, often introspective piece that demonstrates a highly personal rapprochement with tonality. From the moderately-paced first movement – taking on the motion of a scherzo at its apex – through a wistful intermezzo and finale that builds as a series of variants on its main theme to a powerfully-wrought climax and resigned coda, this is music informed by experience and pervaded by a keen melancholy. Few finer orchestral works have appeared in Britain over the past quarter-century and, though a successor looks unlikely, this alone ought to secure Bennett’s standing in the genre.

The symphony was thoughtfully rendered by the BBCSO – even though the finale could surely evince a greater lyrical rapture – and Martyn Brabbins, who once again demonstrated his all-round versatility as a conductor. The composer looked gratified, even a little embarrassed, at having had the evening to himself (there had earlier been a recital of his piano music and choral items – including RRB’s arrangements of Gershwin and Duke Ellington – in nearby St Giles, Cripplegate) – and yet, as the ‘main’ concert amply confirmed, his has been a significant across-the-board contribution to British music – such as would be a pity to celebrate only on ‘special occasions’.

  • Concerts broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 11 April: Choral and piano music at 6.30, BBCSO concert at 7.30

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