John Wilson Conducts Richard Rodney Bennett

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BENNETT: Concerto for Stan Getz. Symphony No. 2. Serenade for Small Orchestra. Partita / Howard McGill, t-sax; Gordon Rigby, timp; Scott Dickinson, vla; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5212

In my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, I made particular mention of Richard Rodney Bennett’s superb Concerto for Stan Getz, yet had some reservations about the performance I chose as an example because the soloist, John Harle, made no attempt to sound like its dedicatee. This is a perfect example of what I claim is the Achilles’ heel in the “historically-informed” movement in the classical music world. If you can’t sound like the artists for whom a work was written, and particularly those who premiered it (Getz, sadly, died before he got the chance to play the concerto), then how can you claim that your ahistorical fiddling around with orchestral sonorities and playing with straight tone are what the composer heard or wanted? Answer: You can’t.

Happily, Howard McGill, the soloist on this recording, does a credible job of trying to sound like Getz, particularly in the second movement where he emulates his model’s warm, breathy tone. But that’s only to be expected since McGill studied both jazz and studio music at the Guildhall School of Music, and in fact won the BBC Don Lusher Prize at age 21 as the best up-and-coming jazz musician in Great Britain. I would call his interpretation here definitive, and a model for many young saxists to emulate. As for the music, it is a happy fusion of jazz and classical, including improvised sections, and may be the pinnacle of Bennett’s writing in a “third stream” style. The afore-mentioned second movement is the most song-like, or one may say the most approachable environment for a jazz artist to work in, particularly Getz himself who did some of his best work in slow tempi, but the first and third movements are densely written and by no means “cheap” or “easy” for the symphony orchestra to play. The odd staccato rhythms that open the third movement may seem antithetical to the Getz aesthetic, but the music quickly changes and opens up, allowing the soloist to play in a much jazzier manner. I can’t say enough about McGill’s performance here; he is in a league of his own, as far as I’m concerned, and unless an American saxist with similar sensibilities comes along to tackle the work, he is surely the best interpreter of it at this moment. Kudos! Wilson’s conducting is also wonderful, similar to that of the excellent Barry Wordsworth in the premiere (I had no qualms at all about his contribution).

Shifting gears, we next hear the early (1967) second symphony. This is a much more modern-classical sort of piece, using piquant harmonies and spiky melodic lines. It almost sounds like a different composer, much more in the line of today’s music. In between the jagged brass figures, however, there is some real musical invention going on to offset the “shock” value. As Bennett himself said, although his music at this time was grounded in serialism, “I am very anxious that people should not be conscious of it…in fact, the more I use serial technique, the less I am inhibited about making sounds which relate directly to tonality.”

This is evident in the symphony’s interlinked four movements, and as one listens one is constantly drawn to Bennett’s tonal palette and its almost magical interweaving of themes. It is even more clear in the wonderful Serenade which, though lighter fare than the symphony, is by no means banal or geared towards low musical tastes. Bennett’s score is delicately crafted but full of rhythmic and textural surprises, with wonderful melodic snippets that he weaves together.

The Partita, too, is light music, but in this case a bit more for popular tastes. This doesn’t mean it’s not well constructed, only that it is less engaging for the sophisticated music listener.

If the music on this CD seems to be a succession of diminishing quality—the Partita is, really, the kind of stuff one hears all too often on classical radio stations, and quickly turns off—make no mistake: the concerto and the symphony are first-class works which you really need to hear, and the Serenade isn’t bad at all. But this is what happens when one decides to record a certain composer’s music complete and that composer worked in different venues for widely varying audiences. At least half the disc is valuable and interesting, thus I can give it a qualified recommendation.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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