This album is titled “Orchestral Works, Volume 1”, so I assume that we are in for further installments, though these days that is by no means a certainty. I have only in the last few years or so become acquainted with the work of Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936), and each time it has been a pleasurable experience. The man is simply amazing in the number of activities he engages in. He is classically trained (at the Royal Academy of Music), and embraced a rather fierce modernism early on (as his training with Pierre Boulez might suggest); but he was always involved with jazz in one way or another (earning a living as a jazz pianist while a student), and has continued his involvement over the years. He has a cabaret act, and is popular as a singer of traditional American songs. (See review of his simultaneous Chandos release in our Jazz Section.) And of course those who know his music know of his work in the film industry also.
It is highly unusual for such a man, spread thin by the various stylistic demands made on him, to be proficient, and even excel in all of these areas, but Bennett does so, and easily. Without prior knowledge of his work, listening to this album would never give any sort of hint as to his jazz/popular involvement. The Partita is a good example; while William Walton would not sport this kind of melodic invention (there are some truly soaring, exquisite melodies in the second movement), he would certainly recognize the formidable and highly charged rhythms that Bennett uses. Even though the name “Partita” often conjures up forbidding images of obscure, esoteric music, that is most certainly not the case here, as this is one of the most accessible, and delightfully tuneful pieces of modern music that I have come across lately.
Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune was written for the European String Teachers Association, and its modal, off-phrased mannerisms do justice to the chanson of Josquin des Pres, ‘In the shade of a little bush’. There are a series of painless variations that are easily playable (as one might expect, considering the commission) that nonetheless provide challenges aplenty for any group of string instruments. The sweeping lines and gusty melodies remind one a little of the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, but Bennett is his own man here in every way.
Songs before Sleep was scored from the original piano version, and takes its texts from the Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes—but they never sounded as lovely as in these settings, or as profound. Bennett treats these tried and true ditties as serious poems, and the music amply reflects his intentions. Baritone Jonathon Lemalu evidently feels the same way about them, and I kept thinking of Copland’s Old American Songs as they resemble them in feeling, if not necessarily in style.
The last work here is the latest also, and to my mind the greatest thing on the disc. If the English pastoral school holds any attraction for you at all, then be prepared to wallow in 26 sensuous minutes of unadulterated modal melancholy. Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song is dedicated to the Queen Mother and Prince Charles, in honor of her Scottish heritage. The theme, ‘Call the ewes to the knolls’ was also used by Michael Tippett in his Double Concerto for String Orchestra, and is given five variants here, all beautifully constructed and played superbly by cellist Paul Watkins. This is a work that should enter immediately into the repertory of every cellist in the world, and is sure to be a crowd pleaser.
Chandos give us splendid sound for the Philharmonia Orchestra to luxuriate in, and Hickox shows his usual sympathy and understanding for all things English. A tremendously enjoyable release.
— Steven Ritter