BENNETT: Troubadour Music. Piano Concerto.* Aubade. Country Dances, Book I. Anniversaries / *Michael McHale, pno; BBC Scottish Symphony Orch.; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5244
This, the fourth volume of Chandos’ ongoing Richard Rodney Bennett project, is one of the more interesting since it includes his Piano Concerto, though it does also include some short, splashy pieces of lesser interest, among them the opening Troubadour Music. It isn’t that such music is poorly crafted, because it is, so much as that it is in-one-ear-and-out-the-other music, the kind of thing you’re likely to hear on your local classical music radio station. But the Brits surely do like their pretty music, and pretty the Troubadour Music is, full of lively little motifs, peppy rhythms, and the ubiquitous slow wind melody in the middle. What it has to do with troubadours, however, completely escapes me. It’s mostly the kind of fanfare piece you expect to hear as the opener for a BBC programme.
As I expected, however, the Piano Concerto is a fine piece. Unlike some composers who work best in miniature forms, Bennett was one of those who was most inspired in larger ones. The concerto opens in a tonally ambiguous sea of string figures, against which the piano plays upper-register swirls of sound, eventually taking over as the sea of strings ebbs and flows behind it. One of the things I liked about this first movement was that the music has a lyrical sweep about it despite the atonal feeling; another was how well it was developed, adding brass fanfares to the strings as it progressed. Written in 1968, it is clearly one of his finest achievements. Even the first-movement cadenza for the soloist is woven into the fabric of the surrounding music with expertise. Towards the end of the movement, the music becomes slower and quieter, eventually fading into nothingness. The second movement begins quietly, but with a sort of jumping rhythm that shifts around while more and different swirls are played by the piano. It was clear to me, at this point, that Bennett viewed the piano part as simply a prominent solo extension of what the orchestra was playing and not an “extra added distraction” as is so often the case. Eventually, the high strings and winds take up swirling figures of their own, which are then developed, while the piano adds its own commentary. After a quiet interlude, the piano’s bass notes propel an entirely new rhythm, which is then taken up by high strings with low brass and timpani throwing all they have into the mixture. This is an utterly brilliant piece.
The slow third movement is a bit more tonal, or perhaps I should say bitonal, but certainly not as up in the air as its predecessors. The eerie, shifting string melody is pretty much ignored by the soloist, who simply overlays his own sprinkles on it as a form of musical garnish. Eventually, the soloist settles into a more conventionally rhythmic (but not conventionally harmonic) pattern, then takes over for another brief cadenza. Eventually, the music becomes even slower and quieter, with the solo piano trickling short, amorphous figures towards the end. In the fourth and last movement, which begins with timpani and trombones, Bennett comes up with even more complex rhythms than in the second movement, pushing the music through various pyrotechnics. The trombones, horns and tubs then interact in an interesting hocket-style passage, after which the piano stops their nonsense with a brusque chord which leads into yet another cadenza before resuming the staccato rhythms of the opening for the development section. It ends on a brusque, unresolved brass chord.
The Aubade for orchestra, dating from 1964, is thankfully not as light a piece of fluff as was Troubadour Music. Indeed, it is in much the same harmonic language as the Piano Concerto, and inhabits the same general atmosphere. The music moves forward and develops slowly, using clarinets and French horns within the orchestral texture. There is also, surprisingly, a nice but brief violin solo along the way. Flute and clarinet flurries introduce a second subject in a faster tempo which is then moved along in its own fashion. The solo violin returns amidst a sea of soft winds and strings a the music returns to the original pace. Another excellent piece!
Unfortunately, we then return to folderol with the Country Dances of 2000-01. Apparently, as he aged, Bennett became more conservative and plebian in his musical language. These works, too, are pretty much in one ear and out the other.
Happily, the CD ends with Anniversaries, composed in 1982 and in a style somewhere between his modernistic, amorphous style of the ‘60s and his resolutely tonal, populist style of the early 21st century. This, too, is interesting and engaging music, well written and continually fascinating to listen to.
A mixed review, then, but only because the pieces are a mixed bag. The performances given here by Wilson and the BBC Scottish Orchestra are first-rate.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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