Richard Rodney Bennett Song and Jazz

Richard Rodney Bennett
A Garland for Marjory Fleming
Songs before Sleep
Poème d’un jour, Op.21
Banalités – Voyage à Paris; Hôtel
Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin

Jazz Selection

Sophie Daneman (soprano)
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)

Claire Martin (vocals)
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 March, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

If you’re reading this on March 29, raise a glass to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett: he turns 70 on this day. Say “cheers” anyway to this most versatile of composers and performers. Indeed, at this enjoyable recital, a drinks-trolley whizzing around the Wigmore auditorium would have been welcome for the jazz sequence. The lights were down low, the volume was up (I’m not sure the amplification was needed!) and some audience mingling and murmuring would have added to the atmosphere, the chinking of glasses setting the seal. There’s no doubting the close relationship that RRB and Claire Martin have or the ease and confidence of their performing; she is sassy, confiding and uninhibited, and he, well, he just does it – a warm, crooning voice, a lively piano style, and an innate sense of harmony. It was a good show, whether upbeat or heart-tugging, whether Harold Arlen or Irving Berlin (and several others). “As time goes by” made a fitting and touching conclusion.

Nor was this 40-minute set at all out of place with the earlier ‘art song’ sequence, a measure of RRB’s musical range and the impossibility of pigeonholing or categorising him. (Why should we want to?) It could be said though that his concert music is recognisably English (see the link below to an interview with RRB), William Walton maybe being his closest soul-mate. RRB’s own songs are always intriguing and imaginative – wit, soul, imagery and communicative, a twinkle in the eye and plenty of heart. Listen no further for the latter than ‘Sweet Isabell’ from the Marjory Fleming collection (1968), a truly beautiful setting. It was here that Sophie Daneman had a momentary loss of words, which Iain Burnside gallantly supplied, momentum not lost. Daneman is a vivid performer and filled the hall easily (with no electronics, you understand), and Jonathan Lemalu was positively stentorian in the second of the Fauré cycle (a Wagnerian peroration) and he was strangely colourless, too, in timbre. (I overheard some further doubts expressed as to his pitching and his French pronunciation.)He was though sensitive to his craft and entered into the spirit of the “Songs before Sleep”, written for him by RRB in 2002, either as a viperous ‘bad parent’ (snarling and hissing to the fore) or inward in ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ to a gently rocking piano accompaniment. Somehow, though, Daneman found more in what she did, and the Poulenc selection was a revelation, not least ‘Hôtel’ (expressing a wish to smoke rather than work) and suggesting the containment of a room, hotel or otherwise.

Having been induced to sleep (although this miscellany of texts is not that specific), “Dream-Songs” then made an apt continuation (after the interval), two songs each, from 1986, alternating the female and male singers and setting Walter de la Mare in gently expressive and affecting terms. Throughout, Iain Burnside was unfailingly responsive to singers and music, and all three performers were presented with tokens of appreciation – bottles of what looked like champagne for the gents, and ‘only’ flowers for the lady: seemed a bit unfair!

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