Richard Rodney Bennett’s Orchestral Works

CHSA 5230 - cover

BENNETT: Symphony No. 1. A History of the Thé Dansant.* Reflections on a 16th-Century Tune. Zodiac, for Orchestra / *Dame Sarah Connolly, mezzo; BBC Scottish Symphony Orch.; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA5230

This, Vol. 3 of Richard Rodney Bennett’s orchestral works, is the second I’ve heard, the other being Vol. 2 because it included the Concerto for Stan Getz. Although an often interesting composer, I found that earlier disc somewhat uneven, including the Serenade for Small Orchestra and Partita that I didn’t care for very much.

But this one opens with the first symphony from 1965, and although some of the music seems to be written for “effect” and some of the devices seem directly taken from Stravinsky, one can hear that the composer was working towards his own style. There are spiky, wide-ranging intervals in the opening theme, played by strings and punctuated by aggressive brass. The music quiets down, then picks up in volume again as Bennett develops his spiky theme. As Bennett himself said about the piece, he didn’t know initially that the commission for this work “was going to be a symphony,” but began “playing around with a large orchestra… I was, in a way, showing off with the 1st Symphony and somehow it really worked.” According to the notes, the second movement was dedicated to tenor Dan Klein, who Bennett has recently met and fallen in love with, though it does not include a tenor vocal. It is a very well-written and extremely passionate piece without being mawkish or sentimental. The third movement returns to the mood of the first, but with more lyrical interludes to add contrast. Although not a great work, it is clearly a good one.

A History of the Thé Dansant has both a strong connection to the jazz music that Bennett grew up with and loved and to his family through his sister Meg, who wrote the poetry. Although his parents were Bohemian and artsy, with strong connections to composers Roger Quilter and Eric Coates, they were snobbish cold fish who showed their children no love. Richard went through therapy in the 1980s to resolve these conflicts, and it was at about this time that he set these poems by Meg to music for mezzo-soprano and piano. This orchestral arrangement was scored by Bennett much later, in 2011. Sarah Connolly may indeed be a Dame of the British Empire but her vocal glories are clearly behind her. In this recording, her voice is astringent, sour-sounding and wiry. I couldn’t take listening to her despite the great interest of the music, much preferring the 2010 recording by Susan Bickley with pianist Iain Burnside on NMC 155. Moreover, Burnside on piano captures the jazz flavor of the rhythms far better than Wilson at the podium. Oddly, the words of the poems have little to do with love but, rather, capture the intellectual coolness of Bennett’s parents to a T.

Reflections on a 16th-Century Tune is a rather late work from 2000 based on Josquin des Prez’s 1536 song En l’ombre d’ung buissonet. It is in the composer’s more neo-Romantic style that I find somewhat stuffy and uninteresting, thus I will draw the curtain on it and discuss it no further except to say that I did like Variation 4, “Con brio e ritmico.” Since it was, however, dedicated to conductor John Wilson who performs it here, one can assume that this is an authentic reading.


By contrast, I really enjoyed Zodiac from 1975-76, written on a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. as part of America’s bicentennial celebrations. What a piece about the zodiac has to do with the American bicentennial is anybody’s guess, but the music is spiky, colorful, and more tightly-knit than the first symphony. The notes accurately describe most of it as “ricocheting fanfares and chiming percussion” though it also includes some legato passages for strings in “Cancer: Adagio” and is really a quite varied piece. Wilson conducts this extremely well.

A sort of mixed bag, then, although in this case it was only the third piece that I didn’t care for and only Sarah Connolly’s performance that turned me off. Otherwise, quite interesting music and good performances.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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